Let us think the unthinkable. Just imagine for a moment that the supranational institutions of the European Union were functionally democratic and actually accountable to us, the voters. In such an unlikely world, the EU Commission might be obliged to make it clear to the Scottish electorate whether their nation could or could not (re)join the EU following an independence vote. But this is not the world that we live in: the EU’s democracy is simply PR, its inner workings are the hostage of only remotely democratic power struggles, and the notion that the EU should have to respond to normal democratic pressures has apparently not penetrated the current independence debate.
Take, for example, the leading pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland, where the Reverend Stuart Campbell complains that “Better Together” “scream about uncertainty around Scotland’s membership of the EU, yet the answer to that question is in their gift and theirs alone.” There you have it. The EU is a faraway foreign power, which can only be approached by Westminster intermediaries, rather than a democratic organisation which has to occasionally chat to its voters.
As a democrat, this seriously winds me up. It clinches the fact that “Scottish independence” is perhaps the most disastrously misnamed venture in British history. We are offered merely another flavour of devolution, and one which appears to randomly prefer the EU’s meddling to that of Westminster. Today’s referendum white paper indicates that a newbie Scotland is bound to get a heap more aggravation from the EU than Westminster, simply because the former is less encumbered by democracy.
On all of these questions we will just have to see how the cookie crumbles. Yet the single big idea within Westminster politics is The Recovery, and a post-independence Westminster government is unlikely to restrict access to the Sterling Zone or to the Common Travel Area, for fear of being deemed responsible for injuring trade and growth. In any case, those of us who do not eat and breathe economics struggle to see how a Westminster government could realistically prevent Scotland from using sterling. Would they send the SAS to abseil through our windows and confiscate any stray fivers; or would the UK print its own new separate currency simply out of spite?
Today’s white paper proposes with some credibility that an independent Scotland would not rank amongst the EU’s accession states. In seceding from an existing member, Scotland has EU law and practice written all over it. Yet the white paper effectively snubs the proceduralism of the European Commission, in favour of appealing directly to European member states to recognise Scotland as a fellow member. Here the SNP’s “suitable legal route” falls apart spectacularly. Alex Salmond would have to persuade every European member state to accept Scottish independence. Leaving aside his failure to yet achieve this with over half of Scotland’s own population, the existing EU nation states are naturally not predisposed to existing nation states breaking up. The Spanish government, for example, is struggling to stifle Catalan independence. France keeps a watchful eye on its Basque stirrings, whilst there are minority rumblings in Romania. It would take only a single veto to boot Scotland back into the North Sea.
Salmond seems to be naively assuming that a newly independent Scotland would have such profound democratic legitimacy that every other state would be forced to respond with generosity to its membership bid. It is the same old story with Scottish nationalism and its grossly naïve attitude towards the EU. Salmond regards the EU as being benignly apolitical or purely legalistic, when its entire history is one of steadily securing ever greater powers.
As a democrat, I suppose I have to concede that the results of a promised British in-out referendum on EU membership might end up being out of sync with Scotland’s majority support for the EU. The white paper is right to judge that achieving greater influence within the EU will enhance Scottish democracy and give us a mite more power over this destructively meandering behemoth. But this is unlikely to be unconditional. We are gambling without knowing the odds and they are potentially pretty stiff.
[The Boiling Frog also dwells upon these themes here.]