The EU referendum as a game-changer?

John Peterson, University of Edinburgh

John Peterson, University of Edinburgh

Professor John Peterson, Professor of International Politics at the University of Edinburgh, argues that the promise of an EU referendum is not a game-changer in the debate on Scottish independence, but that it does change the game for the UK’s future on the international stage.

Last Monday, David Lidington MP, Minister of State at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee meeting in Edinburgh on issues surrounding the foreign policy implications of Scottish independence. We were pleased he also took the time to meet with staff and students at the University of Edinburgh.

But my own view is that that these sessions spend time talking about things that are largely unimportant, since I find it hard to imagine that – when Scottish voters finally pull the trigger – a majority will opt for independence. Given that the vote is more than a year away in 2014, I could be wrong. But I cannot see a ‘yes’ majority emerging next year or in the foreseeable future.

While I yield to no-one in my respect and admiration for Michael Keating (see his Scotland on Sunday article posted on this blog), I don’t really view the Conservative Party’s ‘renegotiate and referendum’ policy on Europe as changing the political equation surrounding the Scottish independence referendum. For one thing, the timing – on Scottish independence and the UK’s status in the EU – doesn’t sync, as any possible referendum on ‘in or out of Europe’ won’t occur (barring anything unforeseen) until 2017 at the earliest. For another, the SNP has badly mismanaged the question of an independent Scotland’s EU membership, with the result that relatively few presently undecided or ‘no’ voters are likely to switch to the ‘yes’ camp on the grounds that a vote for independence is a vote for continued EU membership. Finally, the polls (admittedly based on very low numbers) tell us that Scots are only marginally less Eurosceptic than other Brits.

In my own remarks to the Minister of State, I tried to impress upon him that the Prime Minister’s long-delayed speech on Europe made the Conservative Party position sound about as reasonable as possible, especially to people who don’t understand how the EU works, or the UK’s present standing in it. My guess is that most British voters think that the EU needs the UK more than the other way around, especially given Cameron’s past rhetoric about how Brussels ‘picks the pocket of the UK tax-payer’. But the EU works on the basis of compromise and consensus and Cameron has profoundly irritated other EU leaders with his uncompromising tone and behaviour (even challenging the right of the other 26 member states to use EU buildings to negotiate a new treaty).

In my view, the Prime Minister is on a hiding to nothing. If Scotland does vote ‘Yes’, it may well require all 28 member states (after Croatia joins on 1 July of this year) to agree to the terms of an independent Scotland’s EU membership. Getting consensus in today’s European Union is no easy task. But the exact same logic will apply to Cameron’s attempts at ‘renegotiation’. Like Michael Keating, I would expect other EU member states to grant the UK only very limited concessions in the main areas where Cameron has signalled he will ask for them: employment, environment and social policy.

There is no other issue – with the arguable exception of immigration – that Cameron has so mismanaged as the UK’s place within the EU. That has been the case since the time he first took over as party leader and signed off on the shift of Tory MEPs from their group in the European Parliament – the European Peoples’ Party (the largest by far in the EP) – to a much smaller one that includes very conservative east European parties that flirt with racism. Conservative MEPs were far better placed to be heard and to shape policy when they were members of the EPP. More recently, the endless delays in the actual delivery of Cameron’s speech on Europe – which he himself compared with ‘tantric sex’ – allowed the views of Europhobes on his backbenches (not to mention UKIP) to get far more ventilation in the media than was necessary. Ironically and miraculously, I suspect the long-term effect of the rhetoric of Tory Eurosceptics is to play into the hands of both UKIP and the SNP. Europe is the single issue that future historians are likely to associate with the words ‘David Cameron’, but it is unlikely to be a positive legacy.

If Cameron is committed to a positive agenda on Europe, then I propose it goes something like this:

Europe is a small, crowded peninsula of Asia;
it is composed overwhelmingly of small countries who must:
cooperate to prosper or even to survive,
especially at a time when by most measures Europe is losing power relative to emerging states such as China, India and Brazil.

Michael Keating is right that Cameron’s speech on Europe was a game-changer. But the game it changes is one about the UK’s future international role and not a game about Scottish independence. It is interesting and very revealing that the Obama administration has made it crystal clear that it takes a very dim view of how Cameron has acted to isolate the UK in Europe. Raymond Seitz, a talented US Ambassador to the UK, said upon his retirement in the 1990s that London’s influence in Washington was directly proportionate to its influence in Berlin, Paris, Rome and (especially) Brussels. Nothing has changed since then, except that the UK is more isolated in Europe than it has been since the ‘I want my money back’ days of Mrs Thatcher.

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