Rocky road to independence for Scottish nationalists | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 08.04.2014
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Rocky road to independence for Scottish nationalists

With about half a year to go before a referendum on independence, Scottish nationalists are finding that leaving the United Kingdom and creating a new state might not be smooth sailing.

One of the people to throw a slight spanner in the arguments of the Scottish "yes" campaign was the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso when he said on Sunday 18th September that it would be "difficult, if not impossible" for an independent Scotland to join the European Union.

Speaking on the BBC, Mr Barroso warned that member states which are wary of their own regions seceding, such as Spain, would almost certainly block Scotland's membership. "It will be extremely difficult to get the approval of all the other member states to have a new member coming from one member state"' he said.

Scottish nationalists, though, dismissed Barroso's comments as "preposterous." John Swinney, finance minister at Scotland's devolved parliament in Edinburgh, said. "Scotland has been a member of the EU for 40 years -we're already part of the European Union."

Shaken but not stirred

A picture of José Manuel Barroso at an EU summit in December 2013

José Manuel Barroso has warned Scotland that it will not be able to join the EU automatically

Michael Keating, professor of politics at Aberdeen University agrees. "It is in nobody's interest to throw Scotland out of the single market - not Scotland, the rest of the UK, the other member states, business or anyone would gain from this," he says.

Professor Keating was confident that while "Scotland would need to apply for membership [of the EU] would be admitted," saying that Mr Barroso had "got himself tied in knots."

Nevertheless, Mr Barroso's remarks come at a delicate time for Scottish nationalists, already shaken by voices from London last week which have started to hint that if Scotland were to become independent they might not be able to keep the pound.

Last week, George Osborne, the British chancellor, aka the UK's money man, ruled out a formal currency union between the rest of the United Kingdom and an independent Scotland.

'Bullying' tactics

Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister and the leader of the Scottish National Party, responded by accusing unionists of "bullying" Scotland by refusing to accept that an independent Scotland could share Sterling.

A symbolic picture of the British pound

If Scotland goes independent, will they be allowed to keep the pound?

In a speech to a pro-independence business group in Aberdeen on Monday(17.02.2014), Mr Salmond said that a separate Scottish currency could mean £500m a year in transaction costs for the rest of the UK.

"My submission is that this charge - let us call it the George Tax - would be impossible to sell to English business," Mr Salmond said confidently.

The SNP leader said that Mr Osborne's refusal to countenance a currency union with an independent Scotland was a "campaign tactic," that would "differ greatly from the reality of life" after the referendum if Scots vote "yes."

No wish to join the Euro

The SNP and Yes Scotland have maintained that a Sterling union would follow independence. But as this position comes under increasing pressure nationalists could now be forced to develop a currency 'Plan B' - although they have already dismissed the prospect of joining the euro, which would take at least two years in any case as Scotland would first have to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Alex Salmond holding up the white paper for Scottish Independence

Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond accuses Westminster of "bullying" tactics

"There are no really good options. It's about what is the least worst option," Stephen Boyd, assistant secretary at the Scottish Trades Union Congress told DW.

Although the leadership of the SNP have said repeatedly that they will keep Sterling, some in the Yes camp have indicated they would prefer to have an independent currency.

"But a new currency would require painful adjustment as Scotland built up the necessary foreign currency reserves," explained Boyd. "People are not thinking through the transition process [to another currency]. The Scottish government has, which is why they are beholden to the currency union. All the other options would require abrupt adjustments, which aren't going to be pretty," he stressed.

The currency debate, a key battleground?

How the currency debate will play out among Scottish voters is unclear. Recent opinion polls suggest that the "yes" side have gained some ground, although they still trail unionists by as much as a third. The key electoral battleground will be the large tranche of undecided voters. Sophie McCook, from Findhorn in Moray, is still weighing up how she will vote in September but says that the wrangling over the European Union and the currency is unlikely to influence her decision.

The cover for the new Asterix comic, Asterix and the Picts which looked at the fight for independence through an historical perspective

The Scottish independence campaign is being watched closely in Europe by seccessionists and the EU itself

"The currency thing is interesting. I didn't have much of an opinion on it before, but now it's been brought up I've had to form one," she says. "My simplistic fix would be to peg Scottish pounds to Sterling, keeping trade across the border stable. Most Scots already take 'English' money to places like London to avoid problems with taxi drivers."

Another undecided voter, Jane Carnall, a web manager in Edinburgh, dismisses Mr Barroso's comments on EU membership as "a red herring." But she did concede that the currency is "a different issue" for a country that has an economy in which financial services, as well as oil, play a very prominent role.

"If Scotland isn't in Sterling anymore - if it was to decide to join the Euro or to have its own currency - it is hard to see why the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland wouldn't move to London." Such concerns, about whether large British financial institutions would remain in Scotland and the impact on the Scottish economy if they left after independence, underscore the importance of securing the use of Sterling for SNP leaders. Around 10 per cent of the rest of the UK's trade is with Scotland.

A picture of a debate in Scotland discussing the possibility of independence

Debates are going on all over Scotland whether to vote 'yes' or 'no' - and many are still undecided

'Treating people like fools'

In response to the UK Chancellor's comments last week, the SNP Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the "no" campaign were "treating people like fools".

"People are not fools. People can see the sense of the position we are putting forward for Scotland and the rest of the UK. They know this is a rather cack-handed panicky campaign maneuver. I am not going to be bullied out of the right position for Scotland and for the rest of the UK," Ms Sturgeon continued.

However, economist Stephen Boyd says that far from being in the economic interest of the rest of the UK to join a formal currency union with an independent Scotland such a move would pose "potential risks" that "do not stack up with the potential benefits."

"A lot of people are seeing this in nakedly political terms but if many of the most authoritative voices - the UK Treasury, independent experts - are all saying the same thing, then there is a problem for the Scottish government," concluded Mr Boyd, indicating that there is still a long and rocky road ahead before the referendum in September.

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