Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Would the EU allow a Scottish secession-accession?

Following the whirlwind events of this week, Scotland now appears to be closer to secession than it has ever been in the 300-year history of Great Britain. This week the first minister of the devolved Scottish Parliament set a date for the first referendum on Scottish independence in history. And according to polling, if the referendum were held today, Scots could very well vote to separate from the United Kingdom.

The discussion of secession has been hanging in the air for some time, ever since the secessionist Scottish National Party won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2007. But now with an independence referendum date set, discussion has turned for the first time toward the real practicalities of what a split would entail and the difficult questions it would present. Who does the oil in the UK's territorial North Sea waters belong to - Britain or Scotland? Who would be on the hook for the massive bailouts of Scotland's two banking giants in 2008? Would Scotland use the British pound, the euro, or a new Scottish pound?

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond took the decision in response to a call from UK Prime Minster David Cameron to call a referendum, which the SNP had promised in their election, now. London knows that with the current economic crisis, Scots would be unlikely to be very brave at the polls. But Salmond balked, saying he would not take orders from London and setting a referendum date in 2014. 

EU complications

Though there have been a lot questions asked in the British media today about what secession would mean, as far as I can tell not a lot of thought has gone into the EU implications of all this. Everyone has been asking whether or not Scotland would choose to use the euro. But there's a leap being made there. In order to use the euro, Scotland would have to be part of the EU. That is not up to them, it is up to the 27 member states. And there are plenty of member states with good reason to block Scotland's entry.
No member state has broken up since the creation of the European Union in 1992. But, precedent has been set through the separation of Algeria from France while it was a member of the European Community (the precursor to the EU. Algeria did not automatically become an EC member and never applied to join, so based on the legal precedent, the same would be true of Scotland today. It would not automatically be in the union but would have to apply to join as a new state (and as a new state, it would not have the opt-out from joining the euro that the UK has, so eventually they would have to join the euro).

Five current EU states (Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) seceded from larger states (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the USSR respectively) within the past twenty years. But they did so before joining the EU. In hindsight, Slovakia's split seems quite prescient. It's debatable how long they could have made it as a completely independent country. But by becoming an independent country just 10 years before joining the EU, they never had to find out. They got to join the EU as a member state with all the rights and privileges that affords - their own commissioner, their own seat in the council and a veto right. Nice work if you can get it.

Bearing that in mind, it would be very much in the interest of any independent-minded region in Europe today to secede from their member state and rejoin the EU as an independent country. The benefits of being part of a large country are much less convincing in Europe now that there is a common market. Because of the representation afforded each member state regardless of its size, its better to be a small member of this union than a region within a larger one.

As a regional government, Edinburgh has no legislative voice in the EU institutions (though the Scottish people do have their own voice in the European Parliament through the MEPs). As a member state, they would suddenly have an equal voice to Germany, France or the UK on many issues (those which require unanimous voting).

But countries with regions with active secessionist movements (Spain, Belgium and Italy) would not want to set a precedent by allowing Scotland to secede from their country and accede to the EU. Even Germany might vote no for fear it would give Bavaria ideas. EU accession needs the unanimous approval of all member states.

Using the United States as a point of comparison, it would be hugely advantageous for a US region to separate and form their own state. If Long Island decided to do this, they would suddenly find themselves with two dedicated senators all to themselves, their own electoral votes to choose the president, their own governor and their own taxes. But even though the way the states are organized is much more accident of history than rational policy (the smallest state, Rhode Island, is the geographic size of Los Angeles, and 38 states have a smaller population than New York City),  changing the way they are organized is not up for discussion. Because there's an understanding that the way the way the states were when they entered the union is the way they're going to stay. Everything freezes whether the borders make sense or not, because to open up that can of worms would be a logistical and political nightmare. The EU, it can be assumed, also doesn't want to open that can of worms. 

Could Scotland go it alone?

Scots are generally much more pro-European than their English counterparts, and their inclination toward Social Democracy is often said to make them a better fit with the continent than England has ever been. Indeed, in London there seems to be an assumption from some that the Social Democrats of the continent would leap at the chance to welcome Scotland into their midst. But even assuming there were some Social Democrats in power by the time of Scotland's secession, are we really to believe that European nations would be willing to risk stoking secessionist enthusiasm in their own midst just to gain a new ally on the North Sea?

And this leads to the larger question - what if the EU blocked the accession? If Scotland couldn't be part of the EU, could it really survive as an independent country? There might be Scots tempted to think they could survive in Norway-like isolation with their oil wealth. But that wealth is finite - even if the UK does allow them to claim 90% of Britain's offshore oil as Edinburgh is demanding. Some calculations have said it won't last more than another 10 years.

So if EU countries made clear to Scotland before a referendum that they would not allow them to join the EU, would the referendum still succeed? Would it even be held? And if an EU 'non' would mean an effective veto to Scottish independence, could the UK effectively block it by saying they themselves would block Scotland's entry into the EU? I admit that last scenario is pretty implausible, but who knows what cards London would be forced to pull out if the battle over the North Sea oil got really ugly.

United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland?

On more of a historical curiosity note, I also wonder what would happen to the UK without Scotland - at least in terms of its name. Great Britain would cease to exist, leaving the UK to have to change its name to the 'United Kingdom of England and Northern Ireland'. Perhaps they could add in Wales, which curiously is still not one of the constituent kingdoms of the UK even though it now has its own parliament (it's part of England). The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? The last time the UK had to change its name was in 1927, when it had to add the 'Northern' before Ireland after the Republic declared their part of the island independent.

What's important to keep in mind in all this is that the peculiarities of the British situation would make this an extraordinarily complicated divorce, and the EU question would only be one part of that. The vast majority of secessions over the past decades have been cases of federal entities breaking apart into already existing constituent republics. the SSRs of the USSR already existed as semi-independent entities. So did the republics of Yugoslavia, as well as the separate Czech and Slovak republics within the federation of Czechoslovakia. Even the unsuccessful secession referendum in Quebec would have been easier since Canada is a federal country. By contrast, Scotland existed pretty much in name only from 1707 to 1998 - administratively at least. It was a seperate 'kingdom' within the UK, but it did not have its own government in the way that a US state or a Canadian province does.  The UK was - and still is - a centralised government, not a federation.

With this in mind, trying to figure what belongs to whom would be a lot more difficult in this case than in a federal country like the US or Germany. In the end, the Scots may decide that it's not worth the trouble. But they have two years to make up their minds.


Ninja Fairings said...

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Anonymous said...

Great posting, as usual full of interesting insights. But please don't tell the Canadians that their country is a federal republic. I am pretty sure they're quite fond of their monarch, who happens to be constitutional monarch of not only the United Kingdom, but also Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Kitts and Nevis (source: Wikipedia).

And I guess that the name of Wales would not be included in the United Kingdom of... , as it is a principality (cf: the Prince of Wales).

Manfarang said...

I am not so sure the dominant outlook in Scotland is Social Democracy.
It has been dominated by the Labour Party which was certainly old Labour in Scotland the Blairite changes passing it by.
The breakaway Social Democratic Party of the 1980s was an anathema to Scottish Labour.
Scotland never warmed to Thatcher and this of course led to the decline of the Conservatives. The name Conservative was only used in Scotland since 1965.Unionists are different animals to Conservatives.
The SNP are populists so to get the Liberal Democrat vote they will sing to that songsheet but expect something more along the lines of the Austrian Freedom Party in the future.

Ian Babb - Southwark said...

I have always admired the independency of Scottish people. There should be no good reason to prevent the egress of Scotland from the EU... I think it will do them a world of good!