A few days ago, Gwynoro Jones published on his blog the text of a speech by Lord Owen at Cardiff University. It’s rather lengthy, I fear, but in essence he argues that we need to establish a mechanism for moving to a federal structure for the UK. He’s not alone in seeing that as the way forward, and I suspect that a number of nationalists in Wales, and perhaps even in Scotland, would be content, ultimately, with a truly federal structure.
The devil, though, is in the detail, and particularly, what to do about England. Whilst England isn’t as homogeneous as some think, neither is regional identity developed to the point where splitting it into regions is a realistic proposition. And even if it were so split, the English regions collectively would still have a strong common identity, and amount to 85% of the population of the federation, and thus hold overwhelming sway at federal level.
However, my purpose here isn’t really to discuss federalism, but to deal with one of the assertions made by Owen in rejecting other potential alternative futures. He says, very bluntly, “The option of separate EU membership for Scotland or for Wales does not exist”. Now, of course, it’s much easier to convince nationalists that the only way forward is federalism if you can simply take the other alternative, of independence within the EU, off the table, so I can understand why he would want to do so. But his argument leading up to that assertion is, at the very least, open to challenge.
It is based on the assumption that other EU countries – and most especially Spain – will veto any attempt by secessionist states to seek independent entry to the EU for fear of creating a precedent which will merely encourage Catalan nationalists. Actually, I don’t doubt that both the party currently governing the Spanish central government and the main opposition party would very much prefer that Scotland (or Wales, for that matter) did not become an independent state – it would make things less difficult for them. However, at present, it’s an open question as to whether Scotland will establish a precedent for Catalunya or whether Catalunya will establish a precedent for Scotland; it’s hard to judge what the pace of events will be in both countries.
Let us assume, however, as Lord Owen seems to, that Scotland win that particular race to independence; how certain is it that Spain would then veto any proposal for enlargement of the EU to include Scotland (I’m leaving open the question of timing, and thus whether than enlargement is internal or external)? The answer is far from certain – nowhere near as certain as opponents of independence like to assume.
Wee Ginger Dug highlighted a quote from the Spanish foreign minister (a source who might be supposed to know a little more about Spain’s position than Lord Owen) three years ago, prior to the Independence referendum, which read:
“Lo importante es que el derecho a decidir o cualquier otro derecho debe entenderse siempre en el marco de la Constitución y las leyes.”
“The important thing is that the right to decide or any other right ought always to be understood within the framework of the constitution and the laws.”
And actually, that’s entirely consistent with their position on Catalunya, which is a legalistic one as much as a political one. Under the Spanish constitution, Catalunya simply has no right to seek independence unless the parliament for the whole of Spain first agrees to change the constitution. It’s a bit like England having a veto over Scottish independence, but given the difference in the constitutions of the two countries, the implication is that Spain would ultimately accept an independent Scotland if it came about by a process which the UK recognised as being lawful.
The same minister has also said, more recently, “I may be wrong, but within four or five years England will return to the frontiers that it had in the sixteenth century.” Hardly the words of a man who’s expecting to exercise a veto over what Scotland wants to do. He is, of course, only one man. As of last month, he’s no longer the Foreign Minister, and it’s possible that even when he was, he spoke for the Government’s policy in the same way that Boris Johnson speaks for the UK Government’s policy. But whilst I can find a lot of bluster and reticence from other figures in the Spanish Government, I can find no clear statement saying that they would veto Scottish membership of the EU.
But then, I wouldn’t expect to, particularly post-Brexit. One particular failing of the UK establishment, on which I’ve commented before, is its understanding of the importance of the European project to the other 27 members. For the 27, it is a political project as much as, if not more than an economic one, not simply the free trade area assumed by UK politicians. And from that perspective, it’s much more likely that they’d welcome Scotland than reject it. It’s just that expecting them to say that in advance is unrealistic.
I could be completely wrong, of course; and Lord Owen could turn out to be right. The point is that we simply don’t know, and can’t know, with any certainty, what the reaction to an independent Scotland would be before it happens. They key thing here is that, precisely because we cannot know, assuming that the answer will be the one we want is a wholly inadequate way of dismissing that which we don’t want.It’s easier for Lord Owen to dismiss independence within the EU ‘because Spain won’t allow it’ than it is to enter into debate about the merits of the case; but it’s not a robust argument.