The debate on Scottish independence is heating up: within the last few weeks we’ve gone from emotional appeals to keep Scotland in the UK to declarations that if Scotland leaves the UK it will lose the pound and EU membership. Commission President Barroso made a surprisingly strong intervention into the debate on the Andrew Marr Show, saying that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for Scotland to be accepted back into the EU.
Although there are some interesting arguments on the legal obligations of the Member States in this area, and the assertion is disputed, it probably will be difficult politically for Scotland to re-join the Union. Still, an agreed referendum on independence is different from a unilateral declaration of independence (which is Spain’s real fear), and it shouldn’t be “impossible” for Scotland to gain membership. The 2016 deadline of the Scottish National Party is another story: Scotland may be up-to-date on EU law, but the negotiations would probably drag on.
What’s strange about the debate is that there’s little discussion about the UK union as a whole. (As noted in The Guardian, 100 years ago the situation was different). The polls on independence may be narrowing, but a vote against is still the likely outcome. But even if Scotland stays in the UK, further devolution of powers is on the cards. Without a debate on how the UK should be run – whether there should be devolution to England or the English regions, and if power should be devolved more equally with the central government holding on to limited and clear powers – there is a sense of drift. If devolution is just about the nations and regions claiming opt outs from the central government, rather than part of a broader discussion about how the UK should be run, then the direction of the political narrative is towards exit: maybe not today, but perhaps tomorrow.