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10 Ways Scottish Independence Could Transform Europe
In October 2012, British Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond made an unprecedented deal. In two years’ time, the people of Scotland would be allowed to vote on whether to stay in the UK or go it alone as a new, independent nation.
At the time, no one seriously expected the Scottish electorate would vote to split. Last week, that certainty crumbled. With polls on a knife-edge, today’s vote could easily go either way. But it won’t just be Scotland that’s affected by a vote for independence. A “Yes” vote could have Earth-shattering consequences for the whole of Europe.
10The Slow Disintegration Of Belgium
Geographically and linguistically, Belgium is one of the most schizophrenic countries on Earth. Half the population speaks Dutch, nearly half speaks French, and a tiny minority speaks German. For decades, the Dutch-speaking Flanders region has been itching to break away from its dominant counterpart. A Scottish “Yes” vote could be the trigger to Flemish secession.
Since the nightmare of the Balkan Wars, Europe has been very wary of allowing countries to break up. A peaceful “divorce” between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK) would create a road map for other regions looking to go solo. At the very least, it would spur calls for greater devolution in Belgium, effectively splitting the country into two highly autonomous but connected states. Flanders independence movement is so excited by the prospect that they’ve even sent delegates to Scotland to watch the proceedings. They’re not the only ones to cotton on. Brussels is so terrified of the prospect of Flemish nationalism that they’ve threatened to block an independent Scotland’s entry into the EU.
9A Federal UK
Unlike the US, the UK has never allowed its constituent parts much say in how they run their affairs. Decisions taken in Westminster are broadly applied across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, with little attempt to tailor policies to wildly different areas. Although some regions have limited powers where tax and welfare are concerned, the whole show is still run almost exclusively from London. A “Yes” vote could shatter this state of affairs.
If Scotland votes to go, the likelihood of Wales demanding extra powers is incredibly high. But even within England itself, changes would almost certainly be made. It’s already thought that distinct regions, such as the South West and North East, would demand devolved powers, and there’s even a desire for London to declare itself an independent city-state. The result would be a massive shift toward a federal UK, comprised of dozens of autonomous regions. Whether or not this might be a good thing, it would certainly be the biggest constitutional shake-up the country has seen in centuries.
8The Breakup Of Spain
Spain is currently home to two of the fiercest independence movements in Europe: Catalonia and the Basque region. Ever since the Scottish referendum was announced, both movements have been heating up. If the vote swings to a “Yes,” they’ll likely go supernova.
Already, Catalonia is planning its own independence referendum that Madrid has declared illegal. With at least 70 percent of Catalans backing the vote, the potential exists for things to turn very ugly. If Scotland chooses to break away, Catalans would almost certainly demand a say in their future. Madrid has previously threatened to jail the organizers of a similar Basque referendum. The referendum in Catalonia is backed by the president of the region, however. The end result could be unrest, protests, strikes, and disruption across Spain’s biggest economic region.
But even this has nothing on the Basque region. Until only three years ago, armed separatist group ETA routinely carried out bombings and killings in the area in protest of Madrid rule. Although it’s unlikely an independent Scotland would convince them to take up arms again, it could send Basque nationalism careering back into the mainstream at a time when things are only just calming down.
A “Brexit” is the vaguely annoying media term for Britain choosing to exit the EU. As one of the most Eurosceptic countries on the continent, there have been on-and-off rumblings of the UK parting from its mainland cousins for years. But a Scottish “Yes” vote could well tilt a Brexit from “possibility” to “certainty.”
At the moment, Britain’s Prime Minister is David Cameron: a pro-EU Conservative. However, if Scotland chooses to go it alone today, there’s a chance his party may knife him in the back. Thanks to anti-EU party UKIP currently stealing votes from the Conservatives at an astonishing rate, whoever replaces Cameron will likely be as Eurosceptic as they come. Moreover, Labour party losing its 41 Scottish seats would significantly weaken the party’s prospects of gaining a majority. The result: a Britain that would go careering out the EU at the earliest opportunity.
Although it sounds abstract, the effects of a Brexit would be very real. In a flash, the EU would lose one of its largest economies. Along with the trade disruption that entails, it would severely reduce Europe’s clout on the international stage. The Financial Times also estimates that London’s financial district would be decimated, with possible knock-on effects for American and Swiss banks.
6The Future Of Northern Ireland
For most of the 20th century, Northern Ireland was one of Europe’s most troubled regions. Even after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the topic of “home rule” continues to be an extremely sore one. It’s also the UK region with the closest ties to Scotland—ties that may soon be severed.
For Unionists, the breakup of the UK would be like a punch in the gut. Those in favor of a unified Ireland have been claiming for years that the UK is only held together by a thin thread. To see it snap would give their arguments a gigantic emotional boost. At the very least, it would probably trigger a referendum on the issue—with all the messiness that entails.
According to the BBC, such a move could potentially destabilize Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, in turn leading to a return of the marches, protests, and violence that were once such a feature of Belfast. Ian Paisley Junior—son of the Protestant firebrand—has even claimed it could reopen the conflict in the region. Whether things go that far or not, there’s no doubt a “Yes” vote would affect Northern Ireland deeply.
5The Future Of Kosovo
In 2008, Kosovo took a controversial decision to split from Serbia and declare itself an independent state. In the aftermath, over 100 countries officially recognized it as a country in its own right. Six years later, even Serbia began to normalize relations with its wayward neighbour—although it officially still considers Kosovo a province. Yet, despite this explicit and implicit approval, Kosovo still remains barred from joining the EU. The reason: Spain.
Terrified of setting a precedent for the Basque and Catalonian independence movements, Spain has long blocked the EU from getting involved with Kosovo in any shape or form. However, according to the Economist, Madrid was recently starting to thaw on the Kosovo question. Then the Scottish referendum came along. With a “Yes” vote likely to inflame Spain’s separatist regions, Madrid is already clamping down on any softness its diplomats show toward Kosovo. Should Scotland leave the UK, it’s likely that this brief detente will never be revived, consigning the young country to an eternity locked out of its nearest trading bloc.
4A British Economic Crash
After over 300 years of union, the UK and Scottish economies are so closely tied as to be almost indivisible. Unfortunately for both countries, this means that a Scottish exit would be disruptive, messy, and possibly cause a gigantic economic crash.
According to the Telegraph, last week alone almost £2.3 billion was wiped off the value of Scottish businesses when a poll seemed to point to a “Yes” victory. In response, foreign banks have begun advising their clients to get their money out of the UK as fast as possible. Credit Suisse has warned that a recession is looking likely, and it’s expected that a breakup would cause the UK’s GDP to fall sharply. On September 9, 2014, the Independent newspaper revealed that billions were already being pulled by investors, causing the value of the pound to plummet.
Bad as things might be for rUK, things could be worse for Scotland. Paul Krugman has warned Scots to be “very afraid” of the economic fallout independence could bring.
3Whole New Borders
Currently, Scotland is part of two unions: the United Kingdom and the EU. Following an exit from the UK, however, everything could shift in surprising new directions.
For one thing, Brussels has already made clear that an independent Scotland would have to reapply to the EU. Although this sounds like a mere formality, it’s really anything but. As part of the UK, Scotland currently has an “opt-out” on certain conditions of EU membership. One of these is joining the Eurozone. The other is joining the Schengen Agreement—a piece of legislation designed to allow any EU citizen freedom of movement across the continent. An independent Scotland would probably lose these opt-out rights. This is where things get tricky.
Scotland wants become part of a Common Travel Area arrangement the rest of the UK has with Ireland. However, it also wants to be part of the EU. If Schengen is implemented in Scotland, the rUK government will essentially have no choice but to set up a proper border between the two countries. This would transform the shape of both the UK and Europe. For the first time, EU citizens would have the automatic right to free movement within part of the British Isles, while Scots would find themselves locked out of rUK. The knock-on effects on trade could be enormous, affecting the whole of Europe.
We’ve already mentioned a number of independence movements that might be fired up by a Scottish “Yes” vote. But the effects could go far beyond Spain and Belgium. According to former Secretary General of NATO George Robertson, it could trigger a domino effect that would lead to “the Balkanization of Europe.” The European Free Alliance counts 40 wannabee countries that would be spurred on by Scottish independence. If one or two manage to go solo, nearly all of the others will at least try to follow.
However, the New York Times has suggested that this could be exactly what Europe needs. At the moment, the continent has been gripped by a surge of openly racist, far-right parties jumping on the nationalist bandwagon. The best antidote to their vitriol could well be a shift toward moderate nationalist parties standing up for one small region. In a Europe consisting of over 60 tiny nations, the electorate would doubtless feel less alienated from politics and less likely to drift toward extremism. Far from shattering Europe, there’s a real chance Scottish independence might trigger a wave of regionalized democracy, making the whole continent healthier and even happier.
On the other hand, the future could be decidedly less sunny. Remember the infamous “Brexit”? Well, the knock-on effects of rUK splitting from Europe could go way beyond the economic and into some very messy areas indeed.
As Reuters has pointed out, a Brexit would essentially leave one country in control of the EU: Germany. With rUK gone and France in shambles, the continent would have no country capable of providing a balance to Berlin. And Germany is currently very unpopular in Europe. As one of the chief architects of the austerity that has devastated the continent’s south, it’s utterly loathed by many EU members. Faced with the choice of being de facto ruled by Berlin or going it alone, plenty of states may choose to jump ship.
The result would be a total disintegration of the world’s largest economy. Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and possibly even France could all split off, abandoning the Euro and Schengen. While the Northern economies like Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark might choose to stick together, the shock of losing nearly all its major players would leave the EU severely weakened—if not outright irrelevant.
However the vote goes, there’s no denying that the possibility of independence has already shaken Europe. In the long run, it could well transform it completely.