Wednesday, 11 January 2012
Would the EU allow a Scottish secession-accession?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.