Why Scotland’s vote has Brussels spooked

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 18 September 2014

As Scotland votes on independence from the UK today, it would be courageous to speculate on the result. Recent opinion polls have been so tight that the referendum could go either way. But whatever the Scots decide, the implications will be severe — not just for the (still) UK but also for the EU as well.

If the ‘Yes’ camp prevails, Britain will face a messy divorce. Over a relatively short period of time, until March 2016 to be precise, Edinburgh and London would have to decide on splitting everything that was once part of their common state. From the BBC to the Trident nuclear missiles, from the pound sterling to government debt, experts believe that several thousand treaties might be necessary to deal with the separation.

If the ‘No’ vote prevails, Britain would be spared this fate, at least for now. The Scottish National Party would still pursue its agenda of loosening its relationship with Westminster, and a close result would give it plenty of good arguments in negotiations on new concessions. It could always threaten to rerun the referendum in a few years’ time if not given greater autonomy.

Whether it will be a Yes or a No, Britain will look very different when it wakes up on Friday. It will either fall apart or it will move towards a more federal structure for the UK. In both cases, it would be a move towards greater national autonomy for Scotland, a development which the EU must watch with interest, if not horror.

Scottish independence would be an open contradiction to the EU’s ambition to drive the whole continent towards an“ever closer union”. Behind the EU’s agenda of ongoing, deepening and widening integration lies the assumption that the nation state is an idea from a bygone era.

The era of nation states, which effectively began with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, saw national governance as the dominant form of stately organisation over the past four centuries. However, especially in the European context, nation states were also characterised by deep and acrimonious rivalries with their neighbours. The nation state was therefore blamed for regular military conflicts, which ultimately resulted in the catastrophe of two world wars.

After 1945, some European intellectuals therefore believed that Europe’s best chance for lasting peace was to move away from the nation state and towards pan-European supra-nationalism. The EU’s main purpose or, to use a Marxist term, its ‘superstructure’, was to contain and dissolve historic enmities by integrating different nations into an economic then also into a political union.

As former German chancellor Helmut Kohl liked to put it, it was all about “building the European house”. National peculiarities, interests, histories and preferences were meant to be replaced by a new European identity.

Scotland’s quest for independence is a reminder that it is not that easy to leave all national habits and convictions behind. Scotland has been a part of the UK for 307 years. That is more than seven times longer than the UK has been a member of the EU. It is 250 years longer than the EU has existed since the Treaty of Rome of 1957.

If even such a tenure as part of the UK was not long enough to make the Scots forget about their national identity and replace it with much greater loyalty towards Britain, what chance does the EU have to convince, say, Greeks and Finns that they are not foreigners to each other? Old habits die hard and old national allegiances even harder, it seems.

The Scottish and the English (and Welsh and Northern Irish), despite their obvious differences, still share more with each other than most other European nations among themselves. Not least do they still speak (more or less) the same language. There is no such link between the Portuguese and the Polish, or the Spanish and the Swedes.

For the EU and its officials, it must be worrying that national identities and the nation state still have such appeal to many Scots that they are willing to break away from the UK, despite long historic and cultural ties, and in spite of all the risks that such a move undoubtedly entails. There cannot be a guarantee that Scotland will be better off at the conclusion of its divorce from London.

But there is another reason why the EU cannot be happy about the Scottish development. It is not only that an independent Scotland would seek entry into the EU, leading to the usual lengthy process of accession negotiations. It is also the fear that these would not be the last negotiations the EU would need to lead with newly independent countries.

Should Scotland really gain independence, it would certainly encourage separatists in other European countries. There are separatist movements in Spain for Catalonia and the Basque Country; in France there have been separatists in Corsica; there is the autonomous regions of South Tyrol with its predominantly German-speaking population in Italy, which may consider leaving; and of course there is Belgium, which has always been torn between its Dutch, French and German speaking parts.

Even Germany may not be quite as united as it looks from the outside. Bavaria was a formal kingdom until 1918. As a matter of fact, Bavaria has been part of the German nation state for a shorter period than Scotland has been in union with England. It was only thanks to Bismarck’s unification of Germany in 1871 that Bavaria became part of the German Empire.

A strong regional Bavarian identity, bordering on separatist tendencies, has remained until the present day. The self-proclaimed ‘Free State of Bavaria’ has its own conservative party, which fiercely guards its independence from its Christian Democrat sister party that operates in the rest of Germany. There is also the Bayernpartei, a fringe party openly advocating for secession.

Scotland’s vote would encourage all these dormant secessionist and separatist movements across Europe to give it a try. If Scotland can break away from London, then why should Belgium stay together?

No matter what Scotland votes for today, the referendum will dampen the EU’s ambitions. Its core idea of moving away from the nation state towards a supposedly more enlightened kind of supranationalism no longer looks like an attractive proposition.

The only irony is that a newly independent Scotland would still rush to re-join the EU regardless. That, however, is weak consolation for Brussels.

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