How long will people in Scotland allow themselves to be bullied and threatened?
The headlines on the BBC and in other media yesterday evening (16 February 2014) were highlighting comments from current European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who claims that it will be "difficult, if not impossible" for an independent Scotland to join the European Union.
This is not the first time that Mr Barroso's sentiments have been trumpeted in this way, and given that he repeats them regularly it will presumably not be the last.
So far none of the mainstream media reports have really questioned the basis of Mr Barroso's claim – a bizarre comparison between Scotland, which is pursuing a constitutional referendum on the issue of statehood, and Kosovo, which has attempted an unconstitutional secession. They have not reported what the Spanish government has actually said (as distinct from what it is being assumed or implied to have said). Nor have they pointed out that Mr Barroso's opinion cannot simply be taken as that of the European Commission, which has protocol on such issues, but is rather the personal viewpoint of a conservative Portugese politician with a particular agenda.
These are significant omissions. Even if they are eventually corrected, by online researchers and commentators if nowhere else, it is first impressions which sow seeds of doubt with many onlookers – as the well-funded anti-independence lobby, utilising the weapons of its self-titled 'Project Fear', knows all too well.
In Mr Barroso's argument, Scotland will be a new EU accession country and will require unanimous approval from existing member states. This will be "very difficult" because Spain is likely to oppose its membership in order to be able to thwart its own Catalan separatists. Such canards have, of course, been repeated and demolished several times already.
First, Scotland has been a member of the European Union as part of the UK for many years, and would be looking for continuity with current arrangements as an independent state whose existing broad legal, political and economic framework remains in line with EU requirements. It also holds potential for some 25 per cent of Europe's prime natural energy resources (36.5 GW of wind and 7.5 GW of tidal power) and in its own right would be one of the most prosperous nations on the planet. The idea that existing EU members would suddenly want to bar such a country from contributing to the European project and their shared wealth is politically unsustainable.
Second, the comparison with Kosovo is completely inappropriate. Spain has opposed the Kosovan membership bid. But why? Because Kosovo, which has never been a part of an EU member state (unlike Scotland), declared unilateral independence (unlike Scotland), despite the fact that the Belgrade constitution forbids the independence of any part of Serbian territory (unlike the UK in relation to Scotland).
In fact, Spain has on several occasions stated that its objections to Kosovo do not apply to a country like Scotland. Moreover, even in the case of controversial Serbia's own application from outside the fold, progress to a candidate status recommendation and accession talks was made despite the immense roadblocks requiring a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), and despite the fact that one of the 27 EU foreign ministers voted against its candidature.
As respected political commentator Derek Bateman (a BBC stalwart) has observed, there is also something more than a little offensive about the comparison: "What [is] somewhat galling to those of us who are Europhiles and look to Brussels to provide some leadership on international matters, is the linking of Scotland with Kosovo, where a million ethnic Albanians fled or were forcefully driven out, more than 11,000 deaths have been reported to the UN prosecutor, nine Serbian and Yugoslavian commanders have been indicted for crimes against humanity and in one the accused were charged with murder of 919 identified Kosovo Albanian civilians aged from one to 93, both male and female. Kosovo declared UDI, it did not got through a legal process and is in such a relatively poor state that the EU is nursing it towards normalisation. Does that sound like Scotland?"
It would have been interesting if the BBC's Andrew Marr had directly asked Mr Barroso whether he was suggesting that the European Commission would seek to oppose Scottish EU membership. He could make no such claim. Indeed, the further you push the questions, the less his comments sound like neutral commentary from a constitutional authority (which he is not) and the the more they look like a piece of sidebar mischief-making by a member of the European Popular Party – a centre-right alliance including the Spanish Partido Popular, which has long sought to persuade fellow EPPers to adopt its position that nations or regions becoming independent from existing EU member states must leave the EU and reapply for membership. This is political manoeuvring; it is not European Union law or policy.
By contrast, constitutional expert Graham Avery, the European Commission's honorary Director General, appearing before the European and External Relations Committee of the Scottish Parliament, said in January 2014 that the position on Scotland in Europe taken by the UK government (and those who adopt postures similar to Mr Barroso) was "perplexing" and "absurd".
The man who negotiated the UK's entry into the European Community in the 1970s and who also wrote the membership applications of 13 other countries, dismissed the notion that an independent Scotland would face serious or insuperable difficulties in regard to EU membership.
In fact on a previous occasion when Mr Barroso tried to raise fears about Scotland and the European Union (December 2012), Professor Sir David Edward, a former European Court judge, rejected his views as legally unfounded. Scotland and the rest of the UK would be in a comparable position, Professor Edward declared. There would be no need for a new accession treaty, he argued. Instead, negotiations prior to the completion of independence could perfectly satisfactorily lead to amended EU treaties.
Additionally, UK Government legal adviser Professor James Crawford accepted not long ago that the Scottish Government’s proposed 18 month post-indepenendence timetable is “realistic”, though two years would hardly be a disaster.
Well-informed commentators like John Palmer (Guardian) and Iain MacWhirter have also weighed in.
Yet despite the fact that the more troubling EU question for Scotland is whether the UK, which it is being asked to remain subject to, will itself remain in membership after 2017, the Barroso-linked 'story' will not go away. There is currently skullduggery going on around a legal opinion on Scotland's EU position being sought by members of the European Parliament. Yet, as Derek Bateman points out, strangely, none of them have asked for legal advice from the Council, which is the body actually responsible for membership.
Perhaps the real question Mr Barroso's comments raise, along with the recent menaces from Conservative Chancellor George Osborne and Labour peer Baroness Jay, are not about whether Scotland would be able to find a place within the EU, use the pound and develop a more equal relationship with rUK (the final answer to all three of those is not whether, but how). Rather, it is how long people in Scotland will allow themselves to be bullied and threatened in such an undignified and unnecessary way?
There will be an opportunity to answer that question on 18 September. Increasingly, it is what the referendum is all about: who decides, and who speaks for whom? This historic vote will be an opportunity for a small, comparatively egalitarian nation to move away from unhealthy dependence on a larger state that is being run for the benefit of a small, financial elite – against the interests not just of Scotland, but of Wales and much of England too. The true case for change rests on solidarity not separation. A 'Yes' vote will likely not be the end of the democratic revolt across these islands, but the beginning. The elite in London knows that. This is why it is so alarmed that the tide is turning against its agenda. It is also why it needs to widen the basis upon which its case for maintaining a broken system is built, even by reaching out to a few allies on the very European stage it may end up abandoning.
As a London-born English person who moved to Scotland just under four years ago, I would once have been sceptical of the notion of Scottish independence. What has moved me to a different position since 2010, apart from the experience of viewing the situation from proximity rather than distance, is the chance Scotland has to take responsibility for its own destiny and to carve out a different path from the stifling, unjust, nuclear-armed neoliberal consensus that dominates – and will regrettably continue to dominate – Westminster politics for the foreseeable future. The remorseless negativity of the 'No' campaign and the paucity of many of the attempts to frighten Scotland into accepting Westminster hegemony only reinforces the importance of this once-in-a-generation opportunity.
* More on the Scottish independence referendum from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/scottishindependence
* Scottish independence: Barroso says joining EU would be 'difficult': http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-26215963
* Graham Avery: Scotland’s accession to the European Union (*PDF Adobe Acrobat document): http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_EuropeanandExternalRelationsCommitt...
* Derek Bateman: O homem é um asno (the Barroso affair deconstructed): http://derekbateman1.wordpress.com/2014/02/16/o-homem-e-um-asno/
* John Palmer: Barroso's remarks on Scottish independence are as ludicrous as his record in office: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/17/barroso-scotland-lu...
* Iain MacWhirter: No way Jose. Scotland is not Kosovo: http://iainmacwhirter.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/no-way-jose-scotland-is-n...
* Kosovo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kosovo
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. You can follow him on Twitter: @simonbarrow
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