By voting to stay part of Britain in the recent independence referendum, the Scots preserved the unity of the United Kingdom for a generation and gave a massive fillip to the cause of European stability. Policy makers from London to Berlin breathed a deep sigh of relief. In Europe, a ‘yes’ would have brought agitation from want-away regions and nationalists in areas like Catalonia, the Basque region, Corsica, the Italian Alpine region and Moldova. It would have distracted the focus of the new European executive and legislature from the economy. In London and Edinburgh, an independence vote would have presaged protracted domestic political uncertainty, triggering years of tortuous negotiations over issues like the division of natural resources, revenues, economic structures and the British nuclear deterrent. Still, the debate has had a profound effect on politics, uniting the three main Westminster parties to defend the union and energizing discourse across Britain. For many idealistic, pro-independence Scots, it was not merely nationhood at stake. Some also sought a new response to globalization amid disillusionment at the prevalent Anglo-Saxon economic and social model. A key issue now for the British political parties – and the European Union – is whether they can offer the more accountable and equitable polity that was called for during the debate. If they fail, fears around a fracturing Britain and a polarized and paralyzed Europe will reemerge.
The independence debate in Scotland has had a profound effect on politics, bringing together the three main parties in Westminster in defense of the union
During the run-up to the vote, the Scots were promised further devolved powers by a coalition government itself in a temporary coalition with Labour. Domestically, the debate will now move on to those details and the degree to which more political leeway will be granted to Wales, Northern Ireland and England. The process also awoke English sensitivities around the fact the Scottish MPs can vote on laws affecting England – while the reverse is not the case – and resentment that the Scots receive state benefits not available to the English. But where, then, does the vote leave Britain’s role in Europe? Behind the initial relief, there remains deep-seated uncertainty about the relationship. London remains an awkward partner. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged a popular vote on continued membership, in 2017, after renegotiating powers with Brussels. Past referendums on European integration in France, Ireland and Denmark show just how perilous such votes can be. In 2000, the Danes voted against joining the euro by 53.2% to 46.8%. Opinion polls in Britain are extremely volatile around the EU membership issue.
Mr. Cameron will only be able to deliver a poll if he wins a general election next year. The two other main political parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, oppose guaranteeing a referendum. Still, all the major parties must frame their approach to Europe in the knowledge that the Scotland referendum and EU elections in May have stirred populism and, in some cases, nationalism. Mr. Cameron has been under pressure to address the advances made by Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party in the European poll by veering right and continuing the rich tradition of British obstructionism in Europe. Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973 under Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath. When continued membership was put to a vote in 1975, more than 67% voted in favor. But that did not end the debate. The 1970s downturn and growing friction between Britain and Brussels during the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher sought to check the federalist impulse of Jacques Delors at the European Commission, drove a wedge between the British political class and Brussels. Since then, Britain has remained aloof, seeking to slow political integration, which it equates with federalism, and trying to bury policies it sees threatening the financial primacy of the City of London.
During the financial crisis, London did not participate in bailouts, other than that of Ireland, and it has a formal opt-out of the euro, alongside Denmark. With Ireland and Denmark, it also chose not to participate in the Schengen agreement on free movement of citizens. At home, UKIP advocates quitting the EU and curbing immigration; it won more votes than any other party in May. UKIP has only one Westminster MP although it hopes to change that at upcoming by-elections. UKIP could also make common cause with right-wing parties in Europe to push nationalism up a regional agenda. In France, National Front leader Marine Le Pen topped a presidential opinion poll after winning the recent European vote. The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats have just doubled their representation in Parliament, while the anti-European Alternative for Germany party has also made advances. Populist movements in Greece and the Netherlands are mobilizing. The Scottish Nationalist Party, and its charismatic former leader Alex Salmond, tapped into a similar hostility towards Westminster, elites and established political parties although their European stance was more nuanced (some say naive). They expected to be fast-tracked into the EU, while avoiding entering the euro and opting out of Schengen. It remains unclear how far the Scotland debate will affect Britain’s role in Europe. The Brussels elite will be hoping Mr. Cameron is not in power come 2017, and hence unable to implement a vote on EU membership. Either way, the process has created expectations of change among the electorate. And that is something political elites in London and Europe ignore at their peril.