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Blueprint for Independence?

Nick AmiesMay 3, 2007

Scotland's elections are being watched by secessionist groups around Europe hoping to get a glimpse of their own autonomous futures. Success for the Scottish Nationalist Party could be a real step towards independence.

Despite a recent drop in support, Scottish independence is still a hot election issueImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

May 3, 2007 has been awarded the title "Super Thursday" in the United Kingdom as voters in England, Scotland and Wales go to the polls in a series of national and local elections.

While it is widely expected that the voting in local elections in England will be used to give outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour party a bloody nose, and with the campaign for the Welsh assembly unlikely to cause too many surprises, most of the interest will focus on Scotland.

Outside of Scotland, the vote to choose councilors for all the country's 32 local authorities will barely make any impact but the potential shockwaves from the election for the Scottish Parliament could reverberate around Europe.

The manifestos of the eight contesting parties naturally focus on domestic Scottish issues but the biggest topic -- that of Scottish independence -- has wider implications for the United Kingdom and beyond.

Out of the eight contesting parties, only the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Solidarity party have made the election promise of a referendum on Scottish independence should they get elected to the Holyrood parliament.

According to recent polls, Scotland is on the cusp of a potentially historic shift in power. The most telling survey results point to an end to the Labour Party’s 50-year dominance of Scottish politics with forecasts showing the SNP set to win 50 of the 129 parliamentary seats, seven more than Labour, as dissatisfied Labour supporters turn to the most palatable alternative.

End of 300-year marriage

Großbritannien England Schottland Flaggen
Will the Union be cast asunder by Scottish nationalists?Image: AP

However, while an SNP success would be a huge step towards ending the marriage between England and Scotland which was set up 300 years ago, it would not necessarily lead to the creation of an independent Scotland.

Proportional representation makes it nearly impossible to win an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament. So even if the SNP emerges with the most votes, it will be hard to find coalition partners favoring an independence referendum. The three mainstream parties -- Labour, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats -- have all left the independence issue out of their manifestos.

In addition, public opinion has recently ebbed on the topic. A survey late last year showed that a slight majority was in favor. Now, only about 27 percent of Scottish voters want to dissolve the union.

The SNP promises to give the people the chance to vote on independence after three years of national governance, meaning that if it is successful in Thursday’s parliamentary elections, the SNP would put the question to the country in 2010.

An expanded EU role for Scotland

Großbritannien Regionalwahlen in Schottland Alex Salmond
SNP leader Alex Salmond has a European visionImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Ahead of such a referendum, the SNP would have to address the concerns of those who reject the idea of independence. It is likely that it would do so by offsetting the fears over a loss of financial and political support from England with a vision of an expanded role -- and increased prosperity -- within the European Union.

Scotland, as a part of the United Kingdom, is already a member of the European Union and the SNP believes that this would continue to be the case if independence from the rest of the UK was achieved. However, Atsuko Ichijo, an expert on Scottish nationalism at Kingston University, London, believes that the situation could be much more complicated than that.

"The SNP's position is that, because Scotland is part of the EU already as a constituent part of the UK, when Scotland becomes independent both Scotland and the rest of the UK will inherit the UK membership and 'share' it between them," Ichijo told DW-WORLD.DE.

However, she added, the European Commission has raised questions about this assumption. There are a number of constitutional difficulties the EU would face if it allowed Scotland to "inherit" membership in the bloc under UK membership.

"The fact of the matter is, there is no precedent in which a member state has split into smaller units with each demanding to continue EU membership," she said. "I do not think there is any definitive answer to the question of what form independent Scottish membership of the EU would take."

EU states concerned over Scottish plans

Spanien ETA erklärt Waffenruhe Flagge und Mann mit Basenmütze
The Basques would welcome Scottish independenceImage: AP

Should Scotland become independent and join the EU as a separate state from the rest of the UK, it could encourage other independence movements campaigning for autonomy within Europe. It could also anger countries like Spain who play unwilling hosts to strong independence movements and who would fear the precedent a breakaway Scotland would set, such as the Catalans and Basques in Spain, the Flemish in Belgium and the people of northern Cyprus.

"They would welcome the Scottish precedent because that would make it easier for them to do the same. Also it would have an impact on the debate on 'reconfigured sovereignty' or 'post-national sovereignty', which would most likely be exploited by other independence/autonomist movements across Europe and beyond," Ichijo said.

In addition to increasing the pressure on countries with strong independence movements, a Scottish succession could also provide a headache for the European Union itself if it led to a sudden increase in entities achieving autonomy within the bloc.

"It would certainly cause a lot of practical problems for the EU, especially in the areas of membership votes and the distribution of votes at the European Council and European Parliament," said Ichijo. "At a more abstract level, there would inevitably have to be a complete rethink about the whole constitutional nature of the EU."