Scotland: Visions for a European Future

By Juuso Järviniemi


5.295 million. That’s less than one tenth of the overall population of the United Kingdom (64.1 million), but Scotland plays a bigger role in the Brexit debate than its relative size. A considerable majority of Scottish voters expressed their wish to remain in the European Union on June 23, and with that mandate, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon seeks to protect Scotland’s European future.

Article 50 – what can the Scottish Parliament do?

Now that a despicable ”openly gay ex-Olympic fencer” and a judge who founded a *gasp* EUROPEAN law group betrayed the bulldog-loving British people and for all intents and purposes dismantled British democracy by giving the UK Parliament, that is the representatives of the people, a say on triggering Article 50, the Scottish Government has vowed to intervene in the process. As the Westminster government appeals to the Supreme Court (hopefully there will be no Europeans in that court!), Scotland as well as Wales are asking the court to consider whether consent from the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, respectively, should also be secured.

Next to nobody in the Scottish Parliament actually wants Brexit. When Nicola Sturgeon announced that Scotland would intervene in the process, the intention was undoubtedly to raise the Scottish issue back on the agenda, and of course eyebrows in Theresa May’s cabinet. Then again, in Scotland’s situation, that is entirely justified. Few other scenarios could make it more explicit than the one at hand that Scotland is special. Imposing a hard Brexit on a pro-European people which already seems to be on the brink of saying goodbye to the central government, and that without even asking them, doesn’t sound like a smart move.

Does all of this mean that the SNP, at two seats short of a simple majority in the Scottish Parliament, could singlehandedly veto Brexit altogether? No. As per the Scotland Act, which governs the devolution settlement between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, Westminster retains the right to make laws against Scotland’s will, even though the government announced that it would normally not do so. A vote on triggering Article 50 in the Scottish Parliament would be all about the legitimacy that the decision of the British parliament has in the eyes of Scottish people.

At this point, nobody knows what the vote will actually be about if the Supreme Court rules that parliamentary consent is needed. It has been reported that in Westminster it will be three lines of “bomb-proof” legal text with no room for amendments, that is to say bargaining. However, bargaining is exactly what Scotland wants to do, and Sturgeon has admitted that the appeal to have Holyrood vote on Article 50 is a part of that strategy. If the Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly votes against Article 50, perhaps announcing that only if free movement or some other provision paramount to Scottish interests is guaranteed will Brexit be acceptable or that there is no way to justify Brexit for Scotland, that will be a way to send Theresa May a message: what you’re doing is not what Scotland wants.

What Scotland wants

The Scottish Parliament just debated on Scotland’s relationship to the EU, particularly membership of the Single Market. SNP naturally supported remaining in the Single Market, and so did the pro-independence Greens, but Labour abstained while the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats voted against. While in June all Scottish parties, bar UKIP, supported EU membership and membership of the Single Market, now it was only the pro-independence parties that were ready to stand up for Europe. Even the Liberal Democrats, who are trying to brand them as the home of the pro-Europeans in Brexit Britain, was ready to reject the Single Market out of concern that such a demand might empower forces tearing the United Kingdom apart.

What does this all mean? First, the Scottish government is as keen as ever to protect Scotland’s European future, and as pro-Europeans we ought to respect that. Whoever challenges the Brexit policy of May’s government is making a valuable contribution to protect pluralist democracy, characterised by the existence of more than just one, in this case utterly irresponsible, policy alternative. Second, the Single Market vote at Holyrood served to show to what extent the question of Europe is now conflated with the question of independence in Scotland.

The fact stands that Scottish people are predominantly pro-EU. It’s rather sad that to defend a European Scotland appears to an increasing extent to be the same as to defend an independent Scotland. On the other hand, of course the implicit SNP argument that it is only via independence and a bid to rejoin the EU that the aspirations of 62 percent of the electorate can be fulfilled is more and more convincing as May’s government is driving Britain into the abyss. In the meantime, pro-European unionists are left with few choices: if you view the UK as a single, indivisible entity, there’s little more you can do than sit on the backseat and scream. Right now, though, they’re not even screaming.

What to do about Scotland

Close links between Britain and the EU after Brexit would be the only way for Westminster to retain at least some of its legitimacy in Scotland when it comes to Europe. Securing a hard Brexit while ignoring Scotland’s wishes altogether would be a sure-fire way to irritate Scots, perhaps to the point of propelling it out of the UK – unless Scots do like Scottish Lib Dem, Conservatives and Labour, and abandon their European hopes.

Considering the pressure for continued links to Europe and Scottish independence, both coming from the same direction, surely a Brexit that is as soft as possible would be the best way to keep the country together. That way, at least a degree of accountability would still be there towards the 62 percent.

But then again, can there be such a good compromise that it can satisfy both the English, who wanted to get out, and the Scottish, who wanted to stay in? There is a great risk that what Theresa May comes up with is simply not enough to match what Scotland really wants. One could hardly deny the validity of a Scottish project to look for more Europe for itself, be it through a special settlement within the UK (which might be politically difficult for Westminster) or parting ways with the United Kingdom altogether.

In any case, especially the third scenario, Europeans should value Scotland’s commitment to European unity and show it with concrete action. In the northwestern corner of the EU, there exists a people and a government that is passionate about Europe, in the positive way. That is the kind of enthusiasm we need in the EU. Scotland is an asset to Europe, and we need to keep it in Europe. In Nicola Sturgeon is embodied something that seems to be a lamentably rare occurrence these days: a commitment to Europe, a vision, and a democratic mandate combined. The cause of such a leader is the cause of us all.