By Jacob L. Shapiro
Of the many outstanding questions regarding the ramifications of the British vote to leave the EU, one of the most important is the future of Scotland. Just two years ago, the Scots held a referendum over the question of their independence, and voted by a 55-45 percent margin to remain in the United Kingdom. The outcome was by no means assured. I lived in England in the year leading up to the vote, and the fears that Scotland would vote to leave were very real. The margin of victory for union was certainly not enough to put the question to bed in the event of a serious disagreement between Scotland and the Crown.
The question of whether to remain in the European Union has turned out to be just such a disagreement. Scotland voted by a 62-38 percent margin to remain in the EU, as opposed to a 52-48 vote overall to leave, which means Scotland felt even more strongly about remaining in the EU than it did about its own independence. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is already on record with her dissatisfaction. She has called the results of the vote a “democratic outrage” and has declared that the potential for a second independence referendum is a “statement of the obvious.” She departed for Brussels yesterday with the support of the Scottish Parliament to seek out options for a perhaps independent Scotland to remain in the EU.
And then a strange thing happened. Sturgeon arrived only to find that the EU didn’t really want to talk to her. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, rebuffed Sturgeon’s request for a meeting. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, at first appeared too busy, but squeezed Sturgeon in for an evening meeting. And a host of countries, led by Germany, issued various statements of indifference, all variations on the theme of this being an internal British issue that it was far too premature to address publicly. Brexit pushed Scotland off a cliff and the EU has left it hanging.
A number of factors led to the United Kingdom voting to leave the EU by a narrow margin. But the key underlying issue was the widening gap between the political elites and the average citizen. That is not what is at stake when it comes to Scotland. The issue of Scottish independence is first and foremost an issue of nationalism. It is about the Scots’ desire to make their own decisions, to live in a country of their own, in the place where their ancestors lived, where they can be masters of their own fate – to the extent that geopolitics allows that at all.
This is the reason that many European countries will be very wary of automatically opening the EU’s arms to Scotland. It sets a dangerous precedent for a continent that has been trying to subdue the potency of nationalist sentiments since 1945. Much is made of the artificial borders of the Middle East, drawn haphazardly by European imperial powers. Europe’s borders are no less artificial. Nationalism has just been around longer in Europe, and I would be willing to venture that more wars have been fought over national identity in Europe than anywhere else in the world. Spain contains within it Catalonia and Basque Country (among others). The Czech Republic contains within it Bohemia, Moravia and parts of Silesia. The list is very long when you get down to it.
If the question of whether Scotland should be independent were based strictly on economics, most of the evidence would point in the direction of staying in the U.K. Scotland’s joining the U.K. played a large role in Scotland becoming economically prosperous. In 1707, Scotland was on the verge of default. Scottish government estimates for May 2016 put Scotland’s GDP around 152 billion pounds (about $204 billion), good enough to be one of the top 50 economies in the world and top 15 in the eurozone (if it were in the eurozone). That’s a pretty good run.
Furthermore, according to Scottish government statistics for 2014 (the most recent year available), Scotland gets about half of its GDP from exports – and 64 percent of those exports go to the rest of the U.K. Only 15 percent go to EU countries, and the second biggest export destination for Scottish goods is not a European country. It is the United States. If Scotland had voted for independence, it would have depended on oil income from the North Sea, and that revenue has plummeted with the fall in oil prices. Total income from oil in Scotland in 2014/2015 was 1.8 billion pounds. In the first six months of 2016, it was only 55 million pounds. And even before the drop in oil prices, Scotland’s budget deficit was almost double the rest of the U.K.’s.
This is to say nothing of a host of issues that would have to be figured out if Scotland voted to withdraw from the U.K. – even if the British government allowed for a second referendum so close to the one in 2014 (it must for one to be held). What currency would Scotland use? Would Britain let an independent Scotland use the pound? Could it use the euro? Or create a new currency pegged to the pound or euro? A white paper released by the Scottish National Party said a minimum of 2.3 billion pounds would be needed annually to field a Scottish military of 15,000 personnel. Equipment would have to be purchased from Britain, and Scottish units would have to either separate from the British Armed Forces or be created anew. Compared to the logistics of Britain pulling out of the EU, Scotland leaving the U.K. would be expensive and drawn out.
No matter how many facts, figures or opinions marshalled, however, focusing too much on these hindrances in some ways misses the point. Yes, Scotland leaving the U.K. would be difficult. If it were just an economic question, and if human beings existed only to maximize their economic benefits, the answer would be clear, and Geopolitical Futures’ forecasts would also amount to stating the obvious.
But that is not the way geopolitics works. And nationalism is one of the strongest forces in the world that shapes the way individuals and political entities make decisions. For over three centuries, Scotland and England have been part of the same state, with the same rulers and the same language. Those hundreds of years did not eliminate a Scottish desire for national self-determination in large swaths of the population, nor did it make Scottish individuals identify as English. The sheer resilience of Scottish nationalism, considering everything the United Kingdom has been through as a political union, is a powerful indication of how important the love of one’s own continues to be in today’s world.
While Scotland and England have lived side by side in relative peace since 1707, it must also be remembered that the two are historical enemies. The Scottish maintained an off and on alliance with France in the centuries preceding its union with England precisely because they shared a common enemy in England. The Scottish desire to pull closer to the EU is an echo of that same fear. It no doubt also stokes the same type of nostalgia in England, where the fear was that a foreign power like France would take advantage of an alliance with Scotland to hamper Britain’s power.
Northern Ireland could also leave the United Kingdom, but its departure would be different because it’s on a separate island. Scottish independence would mean the separation of two sovereign nation-states on the British island. For the U.K., that would be a far more consequential development than Brexit. The 2014 referendum raised the possibility of Scottish independence in a serious way. The Scottish and English divide over Brexit brings it up again, possibly with even more force.
We are, however, still a long way from Scottish independence. At minimum, Scotland would have to call for a referendum and Britain would have to approve it, and that process by itself could take months, if not years. Still, Sturgeon’s trip to Brussels produces some compelling observations. Scottish nationalism is a real and powerful force. European fear of what legitimizing Scottish nationalism means is just as real and powerful.
As Germany tries to keep the EU together in some form, the last thing it needs is a new competitor on the export market, or a new peripheral country that will need serious economic help in creating an independent state. None of these things, however, mean an independent Scotland is impossible, nor that Scotland would be any less important should it separate – and that should give all those who dwell in Europe a great deal of pause.