The Scottish Hangover: Why the Scottish Referendum Was Not Good News for the European Union

Governing elites across Europe breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when Scotland rejected independence in last week’s election. A “yes” vote, it was feared, would have pushed the U.K. toward exit from the European Union and sparked a “secessionist wave” of restive regions across the EU. The very unity of Europe might have been threatened.

Their relief is natural, but Europe’s governing class might think about holding its breath a bit longer. The “no” Scottish referendum should be seen more as a wake-up call than a near miss. The broad dissatisfaction with national elites that propelled the Scottish independence drive exists across Europe. The referendum is only a harbinger of what this dissatisfaction will mean for European politics. Indeed, the “no” vote will likely strengthen the forces of disintegration in Europe unless European governance begins to respond to the new demands of their populations.

Likelihood of a U.K. exit from the European Union

Scottish independence would indeed have threatened Europe more broadly in two ways. First, many were concerned that, had Scotland become independent, the likelihood of a U.K. exit from the European Union would have increased. Scottish voters are more pro-EU than the average British citizen and Labour’s loss of a number of Scottish safe seats would have helped propel the Tories to victory in 2015. A new Tory government would then have been forced to fulfill Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on the U.K.’s membership in the EU by 2017.

But, as always, the larger issue is the political mood of the moment. Regardless of who wins the next general election, the pressure to hold a referendum will be all the more intense exactly because the Scottish referendum process was seen as a success. What justifies denying the Brits what has been given to the Scots? More to the point, the referendum campaign demonstrates how difficult it was for the U.K. government to convince Scots to stay even though it began with a 30 point lead in the polls. The cushion is much smaller on the question of U.K. membership in the European Union.

Separatism across Europe

Second, European elites worried that a Scottish “yes” would have stoked the fire of separatism across Europe, most notably in Catalonia but also elsewhere (Flanders, Corsica, Sardinia, Veneto, etc.). And it is true that the victory of the “no” camp is a powerful reminder that even a province with a strong sense of identity will not always choose independence. But the broader lesson is that, thanks to Scotland and the U.K., a template for independence referendums now exists in which secessionist parties have little to lose. A “yes” vote would give them independence, a “no” vote would probably result in greater autonomy, as central governments become more willing to make concessions in order to prevent successful referendums. Unsurprisingly, Catalonia’s regional assembly approved a bill setting a date for a referendum on its independence from Spain the day after the Scottish one was held.

A precedent, in other words, has been set. Several national governments in Europe will find it hard to contend that what was right for the Scots is not right for their own citizens. Given that not all multinational unions have been as successful as the one between Scotland and England, and not all governments are as confident in their national democratic institutions as the British are, the possibility that things take a wrong turn is all too real. If Spain sets the example, there are reasons to be concerned. Catalonia has pressed ahead despite the fact that no agreement has been reached with the government in Madrid, which insists the referendum is unconstitutional. The example of an orderly democratic process in Scotland that settled the issue for “a generation” means that denial of a referendum will be an increasingly difficult position for the Spanish government to maintain.

In the end, the Scots have had their say and the United Kingdom remains intact. But, for Europe, their answer was almost less important than that the question was asked. The genie of nationalism – although not one as nasty as the 20th century European variety – is out of the bottle, and it is far from certain that EU governments and institutions have the capacity to handle it. The immediate consequence of Scotland’s independence may have been avoided, but the implications of the referendum process remain.