In-out, shake it all about

Dr. Nicola McEwen, Academy of Government

Dr. Nicola McEwen, Academy of Government

The University of Edinburgh’s Dr. Nicola McEwen reflects on the implications of Ukip victories and the possibility of a referendum on EU membership for Scottish voters. This piece was originally published in the 14 May issue of the Scotsman.

Until last week, the risks and uncertainties highlighted in the referendum debate were stacked firmly on the Yes side.

The Scottish Government has been facing mounting pressure to answer questions on the implications of independence for a range of policies and cross-Border arrangements, from currency and pensions to defence and foreign affairs. None of these questions has a definitive answer. All are dependent on the outcome of negotiations, not just with the UK government but with the European Union, Nato and other international organisations. But raising the questions serves to augment the fear, uncertainty and doubt cast by those actively seeking to secure a No vote. The surge in support for Ukip in the recent local elections in England, and their strong performance in the South Shields and Eastleigh by-elections, has now turned attention toward some of the uncertainties surrounding a No vote, raising questions about the UK’s political and constitutional future.

Ukip’s success has already prompted a response from the UK government. Stricter immigration – the number one issue for Ukip voters – was at the centrepiece of last week’s Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament, with implications for who can work and access services across the UK. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, also felt compelled to reaffirm his commitment to hold an “in-out” referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU if re-elected to government in the 2015 General Election, amid pressures from his own back-benchers for an earlier poll.

Mr Cameron was forced to further clarify his position on this yesterday after Tory Cabinet ministers said they would vote to leave the EU as things stand. The prospect of an EU referendum raises the spectre that if Scots vote to maintain the Anglo-Scottish political union in 2014, it could involve withdrawal from the European Union.

Of course, the Conservatives would not be in a position to honour their EU referendum pledge if they were to lose the 2015 UK General Election. But it could become increasingly difficult for the other parties to resist similar pressures. There is strong support across the UK for an EU referendum, and the Conservatives are not the only party to face an electoral threat from Ukip. At the last elections to the European Parliament, when UKIP beat Labour into second place (in spite of coming sixth in Scotland), the British Election Study (BES) suggested that more Ukip supporters had voted Labour in the previous election than had voted Conservative. The BES monitoring survey also suggests Ukip is picking up support from disaffected Liberal Democrats. The European elections of May 2014 provide the next big electoral test. The issue of the UK’s future in or out of the EU, and the timing of a referendum on the issue, seems certain to stay close to the top of the agenda.

Scots, it seems, are more comfortable Europeans than their English counterparts.

The mere fact of holding an EU referendum does not guarantee that it would produce a vote for withdrawal. It is perhaps ironic that when, in January, Mr Cameron promised to hold a referendum on EU membership, the percentage of electors saying they would vote for Britain to leave the EU was outstripped by those who would vote to remain in the EU for the first time in over a year, according to the YouGov monthly tracker poll. More recently, though, support for leaving the EU is consistently ahead of support for staying – with a lead of between seven and 11 points.

Opinion in Scotland is markedly different. We may not be a nation of Europhiles, but an Ipsos-Mori poll in February suggested that a majority of Scots would vote for Britain to stay in the EU, outstripping those who would vote for Britain to leave by 19 points. Moreover, the poll showed a remarkable consistency of support for EU membership across most sections of society, and irrespective of party support – even Conservative voters in Scotland support Britain staying within the EU. Scots, it seems, are more comfortable Europeans than their English counterparts.

The consequences of UK withdrawal from the EU are at least as uncertain as the implications of Scottish independence. We might expect some form of agreement that continued to give the UK access to the single market, but the costs in terms of investment, trade, labour mobility and environmental and social protection are unclear, as are the implications of having to give up EU citizenship. The biggest potential losses may be in the capacity for influence within and beyond Europe, and yet the UK would still be affected by EU rules and decisions.

These debates on the UK’s future in Europe have become a key theme of the debate over Scotland’s future. In the past few weeks, several commentators have suggested that it could be a game-changer, shifting support towards a Yes vote to ensure Scotland remains within the EU.

The issue of the UK’s future in the EU has added an intriguing new dimension to Scotland’s referendum debate, raising yet more questions on the consequences of both a Yes and No vote. Whatever the outcome, we face an uncertain future.

There is no doubt that there are anxieties within civil society about the possibility of leaving the EU, and broad support within Scotland for EU membership whether or not Scotland becomes independent. But it is not clear that the threat of a referendum that could lead to withdrawal from the EU would outweigh the concerns or attachments that underlie the current inclination, according to opinion polls, towards a No vote in the independence referendum.

Moreover, the prospect of UK withdrawal from the EU also raises searching questions for the Yes campaign, especially when we consider the kind of independence being envisaged by the Scottish Government. The emphasis has been on a form of independence that would be embedded within the British Isles and the European Union. It is envisaged that Scotland and the rest of the UK would continue to share a currency, a common labour market, a common travel area, a shared electricity market, and a variety of other shared arrangements potentially including agreements on cross-border pensions and social security.

As it stands, many of these arrangements would require negotiated agreement not just with the UK government but also with the EU. For example, agreeing a common travel area with the rest of the UK would necessitate a negotiated opt-out from those aspects of the EU Schengen agreement pertaining to border control, visas and asylum. It is not too difficult to envisage such an agreement being reached while both Scotland and the rest of the UK remain within the EU – Ireland and the UK negotiated similar agreements on Schengen so as to maintain the UK-Ireland common travel area. But such agreements at the EU level could be more complex and politically difficult if the rest of the UK is no longer part of the EU family, especially if it imposed restrictions on EU citizens’ rights to live and work within its territory.

The issue of the UK’s future in the EU has added an intriguing new dimension to Scotland’s referendum debate, raising yet more questions on the consequences of both a Yes and No vote. Whatever the outcome, we face an uncertain future.

Dr Nicola McEwen is ESRC Senior Scotland Fellow, and director of Public Policy at the Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh. 

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