Scotland and First Minister Salmond enter the most challenging battlefield for independence: Europe

Participation of Karel De Gucht, Member of the EC, at the "Ryder Cup - one year to go" celebrations, and an event on the TTIP (EC Audiovisual Services)

Participation of Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, at the “Ryder Cup – one year to go” celebrations, and an event on the TTIP (EC Audiovisual Services)

In these days of heavy euroscepticism, where nationalistic parties are trying to convince the masses of the bad effects of the Union on people’s everyday life, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond chooses Europhilia. In a speech held in Bruges last Monday – which was widely anticipated by rumors and interviews about the topics – Mr. Salmond openly spoke to a European audience for the first time. Many reasons, many interests, many fears behind this.

Mr. Salmond basically wants Scotland to stay in the EU if there is a “Yes” vote on September 18, hoping to agree a safe transition to a renewal of membership before the country declares independence in March 2016. The speech comes in a moment in which polls inform Mr. Salmond that the pro-independence campaign is gaining ground, and that a Scottish pro-EU turn – openly in contrast with the English lack of confidence in the Union – can be a successful card.

Speaking to Reuters, Mr. Salmond pointed out that, while Scotland wanted to stay part of the EU, British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to renegotiate ties with the EU and hold a referendum on Britain’s membership if his Conservatives win the elections next year. “Today Britain sits at the margins of European influence, and if Scotland remains governed from London we face the prospect of an in/out referendum on whether to be part of the European Union at all” Mr. Salmond stated on Monday. “It is conceivable that unless we choose to change our circumstances this September we could be dragged out of the European Union against our will” he added speaking firmly to his audience in Bruges’ College of Europe. The College is a very symbolic and renowned place, being not only the world’s first university institute of postgraduate studies and training in European Affairs, but also the same venue where former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher criticized centralisation of power in Brussels in 1988.

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, 59, which is also Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), started this ‘Belgian campaign’ to actually give more appeal to a wannabe-European Scotland. “The country’s natural resources make it one of the ‘lynchpins’ of the EU”, he said, stating that Scotland’s energy reserves, financial contribution, fishing grounds and academic links place it at the “very heart of the EU”. “One of the great issues facing Europe is the question of energy security. In this area Scotland is blessed” he said with no hesitation. “We have a key role to play in providing energy security for Europe, and in developing the low carbon technologies the world will need for the future”, he stated as he had anticipated with speech notes which were released ahead of the event.

This accurate advertising campaign was set by Mr. Salmond not only to promote the quality of Scotland’s whiskeys and wool among the European citizens, but definitely to gain time against what he is really afraid of. The point is that there is a settled legal view among policymakers in Brussels that an independent Scotland will not automatically be an EU member, but will have to submit application and normally face the prospect of tough negotiations. As reported by the Guardian last Monday, in a letter to Salmond, William Hague, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, wrote: “Scotland’s negotiations to join the EU are likely to be complex and long. […] Your desire for Scotland to become an independent state which is a member of the EU within 18 months of a ‘yes’ vote has been presented to voters in Scotland as a certainty. The truth is that this is far from certain”. Salmond’s visit to Bruges and Brussels was totally aimed at showing that that a separate Scottish state would remain an EU member. Also with very direct messages.

“We have one of the largest national shares of Europe’s total fishing grounds and 12 national fleets fish in our waters. The EU’s fisheries policy would unravel without Scotland”, he declared. Mr. Salmond also warned that European fishing fleets could be denied access to Scottish waters, or even pass through to reach Norwegian grounds, if SNP plan to retain EU membership after independence is rejected.

“Scotland will ask for continued membership on the basis of ‘continuity of effect’”, he declared; however the issues that basically cannot let Scotland keep its EU member status – legal views apart – are quite huge. Dr Ian Duncan of the Scottish Conservatives recently summarized this very well: “Alex Salmond sees the issue of EU membership in Scottish terms, but fails to appreciate the view from across Europe. For some countries it will be a question of how they will benefit from any future negotiations”. A crucial matter for the EU in these strange days, where not only eurosceptical voices are rising, but also localisms and separatist movements are blooming. “For all Mr. Salmond asserts that Scotland is the lynchpin on Europe, there are many member states nervous about the threat of their own separatist movements, whether Spain, Belgium, Italy” Dr. Duncan added. “The only thing that is clear at the moment is that a vote for separation in September is a vote for uncertainty”.

Uncertainty. This is the biggest threat behind any European region’s independence dream. “Can Scotland afford to be independent?” is definitely the question on which the major game will be played, and Mr. Salmond is sure that “yes” is the answer, arguing that his country can be the next successful case study after small and wealthy countries like Switzerland and Norway. On the other hand many analysts report that a country like Scotland, which has a poorly diversified economic system, cannot stand on its own “legs”, and that independence could bring a double-digit decrease in living standards. As reported by the Telegraph, The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) calculated that independence would lead to a third of jobs in the financial services sector being moved south of the border, and a potential mass exodus of financial services would follow. Many see also currency adoption (Euro? British Pound?) and a lack of credibility after independence as major threats on Scotland’s road to independence.

But pro-independence Scots are sure: Europe is the key.

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