Scotland, independence and Europe: addressing the EU democratic deficit


Picture of Duncan Ross
Duncan Ross

When the Scottish National Party adopted a policy of independence in Europe  in 1988, opponents (some of whom were party members) argued that it was nonsensical: why would Scotland seek to leave one Union only to join another? How could a country be truly independent if it surrendered sovereignty to the centralising behemoth that is the European Project? What sort of voice could a small, peripheral nation have in the negotiating chambers dominated by France, Germany, Italy and the UK that Scotland had just left?

Much has changed since 1988, of course. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the accession of many new states has changed the dynamic in the EU. Small countries have found their niche and their place in the Brussels corridors of power while political scientists, economists and citizens understand that, in a world of interdependence, the North Korean approach to autarky is unattractive. The key questions are about who makes decisions on appropriate levels of governance and what powers and competencies can be effectively shared or retained at national or sub-national units. The logic of this process is clear and it points to a fundamental issue that needs to be addressed: Does the nation state as we have traditionally understood it have a future?

This question presents a challenge to the EU itself, which has always been organised around the power and influence of nation states. It is in the commission, the council and the various inter-governmental meetings, not the democratically-elected parliament, that power lies. We have just been through the process of nominating new commissioners and reading the runes of which country managed to place ‘their’ commissioner in an important or influential post, and how that reflects their standing in the EU. Absent from this process is any sense of democratic legitimacy. The rise of anti-EU politics across the continent – UKIP in Britain, the Five-Star Movement in Italy, and similar right-wing and eurosceptic parties elsewhere – reflects a sense of anger on the part of large numbers of the electorate who are taking the opportunity to rail against what they see as a completely disconnected (and corrupt) elite.

It is in this context that attention has turned to nationalist politics. In Scotland, a referendum on independence is scheduled for Thursday 18 September. In Catalonia, the President, Artur Mas wants to hold a referendum in November, though that is currently being blocked by the Spanish government. It is important to say that both the Scottish and Catalan movements are dominated by civic, rather than ethnic or cultural nationalists, and that both are profoundly pro-European. Both see membership of the EU as crucial to their aspirations to independent statehood. The economic, social and political advantages of membership are significant, and they negate any argument about isolation or lack of strength in a difficult and dangerous world. This, of course, is the point of independence in Europe: Small nations can participate fully, have their voices heard on matters of importance to them, develop expertise in particular areas and be respected as full and equal partners in decision making.

Independence for these small states also offers an important opportunity for the EU. As a way to circumvent the inevitable power-mongering of the small number of large states, it could recognise (as was clear in the willingness to offer membership to the countries of central and eastern Europe) the value in having many voices speak as one. The accession of an independent Scotland to the EU will bring another, distinctive voice to the European table. Crucially, Scots will be better represented at that European table by their own government and MEPs than they are at the moment by a UK government whose interests sometimes coincide but often (as, for example, with fishing and farming) diverge from those of Scotland.

A flourishing of smaller states across Europe – Scotland, perhaps Catalonia, maybe Flanders, possibly the Basque Country – would present the opportunity for the EU to re-connect with the democratic aspirations of those peoples and to renew its own commitment to wider participation and representation. Two things are vital here: First, the nationalist movements or smaller independent states must be characterised by the kind of civic and inclusive nationalism (captured in the statement of one Pakistani-Scot who rose to be the country’s first Muslim MSP: What matters is where we are going together, not where we came from) that has been so evident and inspiring in the Scottish referendum campaign.

Second, the EU must re-visit and reinforce its commitment to multi-level governance, the principle of subsidiarity and, importantly, democratic responsibility and accountability so that the new small states (however many there may be) have a real say and voice not only in their own affairs, but also in the European chambers.

There is no doubt in my mind that Scottish independence will strengthen democracy in Scotland. It could also help to rejuvenate and strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the entire European Union.

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