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European Disunion: Cameron, the EU, and the Scots

Screaming their defiant war cries, Scottish clansmen pointed their long spears and prepared to meet the English charge. The two armies came together in bloody combat, the helmeted English knights, slowed by their cumbersome armor, outmaneuvered by the more agile, more lightly armed Scots, and eventually overwhelmed. When the English drew back, leaving hundreds of dead and wounded on the field, the screaming clansmen charged, turning the enemy’s disciplined retreat into a rout.

Not Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, but a staged re-enactment on June 29th of the same Battle of Bannockburn, to mark its seven hundredth anniversary. More than ten thousand spectators watched costumed re-enactors re-create a condensed version of the two-day encounter in 1314 in which the Scottish King Robert the Bruce defeated King Edward II’s superior English force, and led his country to freedom.

The Battle of Bannockburn is embedded deep in the collective imagination of Scotland. It is perceived as a triumph of ordinary Scots over a hated English elite, with Bruce representing the romantic ideal of the Scottish character—courageous, resourceful, and plain-speaking. But the new battle for independence will be fought at the polling stations on September 18th, when people who live in Scotland will vote on the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” A “yes” win will sever the parliamentary union between England and Scotland, which dates from 1707.

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The resonances of Bannockburn are hard to avoid, especially on its seven hundredth anniversary, which is one reason why the Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, after much deliberation, chose 2014 and constantly evoked the battle in his campaign. Many, including some SNP members, now question the strong attempt to link the vote with the ancient battle as too backward-looking at a moment when the independence question should focus on Scotland’s future. As the distinguished English journalist Simon Jenkins observed recently, “It’s very important to separate tribalism from reason here.” Yet despite the mock battle staged by re-enactors in Stirling, on the edge of the Highlands, the campaign between the “Yes Scotland” and “Better Together” movements has been highly civilized. This is no violent confrontation, like the Crimea or the long ETA campaign by Basque separatists in Spain.

Unlike the Spanish government, which has rejected calls for a similar referendum by the Catalans, Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition agreed to the September 18th straight yes-no vote. Quite possibly, Cameron agreed because he was convinced that the union would triumph. If so, that could still turn out to have been a grave miscalculation. As the vote nears, polls show the gap narrowing, and with some twelve percent “don’t knows,” the outcome is as unclear as the impenetrable mists that can cloak the Scottish Highlands. If separatism triumphs in the referendum, David Cameron will be remembered as the prime minister who lost Scotland.

He also faces the further prospect of being the man who led Britain out of the European Union. One of Cameron’s major problems as he approaches general elections in the spring of 2015 is that he’s been forced by the Euroskeptics in his own party, and the success of Nigel Farage’s anti-EU, right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP), to make Britain’s future membership in the European Union a key election issue. Cameron wants the anticipated EU reforms to return more freedom of action to the member states. If re-elected, he has committed himself to a referendum in 2017 that lets voters judge whether the changes justify Britain’s continued membership. But the reforms are likely to lead to even closer union, leaving Britain to demand more special treatment than it has already as its price for continued membership: Britain, along with Sweden and Denmark, for example, are the only three EU member states that have been allowed to keep their own currency—and the EU has declared that no more “opt outs” will be granted.

Going into the election campaign, Cameron is banking on continued economic recovery to provide political capital, but there are still plenty of other issues that could derail the Conservative Party, including the future of the health and social care systems, youth unemployment, and the shock for university graduates of having to repay the new student loans (university now costs an average of $13,000 a year).

 

For Cameron to win the next election outright, says Lord Ashcroft, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and now head of a research project on the next election, Cameron “will need the votes of everyone who supported [the Tories] last time, plus practically everyone who is even prepared to do so next time.” There seems slim chance of that. Cameron got thirty-six percent of the vote in the 2010 election.

Recent polls show his Conservative Party at thirty-one percent, the Labor opposition slightly ahead with thirty-two percent, Cameron’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners trailing with ten percent, and the political elephant in the room, UKIP, with a—for the Conservatives—worrying sixteen percent. Furthermore, a poll in early summer showed that more than half of the voters who backed the Conservative Party in 2010 wouldn’t “if the election were held tomorrow,” and half of those would vote for UKIP.

And because politics thrives on surprises, neither the Scots gaining their independence, nor the United Kingdom ending its always difficult relationship with Europe, can be ruled out.

Meanwhile, Cameron faces more immediate challenges. In mid-year, unemployment reached a five-year low of 6.6 percent, but that good news was undermined by the fact that wages remained virtually static, edging up by 0.7 percent—substantially lower than the April inflation figure of 1.8 percent. Cameron pleaded for more time to resolve Britain’s economic problems. People, he said, “know that Britain faces difficult circumstances; they know that the hole that we’re in is quite a deep one; they know it takes time to get out.”

The prime minister’s personal judgment was becoming an issue when his onetime handpicked spokesman at 10 Downing Street, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, was sentenced to eighteen months in jail in the tabloid press wiretapping case.

Following the sentencing, Cameron made what he called “a full and frank apology” for hiring Coulson, who, he said, had assured him that he knew nothing of widespread wiretapping conducted by the now defunct Rupert Murdoch newspaper. “Knowing what I now know,” Cameron said, “those assurances weren’t right. It was obviously wrong to employ him. I gave someone a second chance and it turned out to be a bad decision.”

In August 2013, Cameron argued the case in the House of Commons for the United Kingdom joining the US in possible military action against the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but the Commons voted against it. The rebuff, which clearly had support from the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government benches, embarrassed the prime minister, and then–Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said it “harmed” Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States.

There was also trouble on the European front as Cameron lost the battle over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, to be the next president of the European Commission, the powerful executive branch of the European Union. Cameron objected to the fact that Juncker had been nominated by the European Parliament instead of by the European Council of heads of government, as was the usual practice. He called it a “deeply flawed” nomination because it represented a shift in the balance of power among the European institutions. Besides, he argued, Juncker was “the ultimate career insider” when what the European Union needed was a fresh, more open approach.

Several other European leaders were not unsympathetic to Cameron’s warning of a power grab by the European Parliament. Juncker is known as a strong supporter of closer integration, which voters in many member states rejected in the European elections in May. But Cameron’s tactic of trying to deal mainly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel while at the same time ignoring everyone else was said to have been regarded as high-handed by the EU’s many smaller member states, who are always sensitive to being marginalized. Cameron was also faulted for opposing Juncker without taking the trouble to find and propose an alternative, which is not the way to do business in Brussels. So the EU was not in any mood to oblige the British prime minister, and when Cameron forced a vote of the twenty-eight European leaders, the only two opponents to Juncker’s nomination were Cameron himself and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.

For some observers with long memories, Cameron’s open confrontation with the European Union over Juncker recalled Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s frequently adversarial relationship with Brussels, and some of her more famous battles, such as the budget debate in 1984, and other encounters of the 1980s. But unlike Cameron, when Thatcher famously said “no, no, no” to the European Economic Community (as it then was), she usually won.

For Cameron, the heart of the matter is a reinterpretation of the phrase “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” in the foundational Treaty of Rome of 1957. Cameron seems under no illusion about the challenges that lie ahead both in Brussels and on the home front. “This,” he said, “is going to be a long, hard fight.”

But even as Cameron admitted losing the battle, the European Union gave him some political slack by hinting that Britain’s objections would be taken into account. “I have every interest in having the UK be a member of the EU,” Chancellor Merkel declared. “The UK has to take that decision itself, but from a European perspective and a German perspective, I think this is important and this is what I’m going to work on. We have shown very clearly that we are ready to address British concerns.” And Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden told the BBC, “This ever closer union perception is maybe not the best for everyone.”

 

Ironically, in one scenario, even as the United Kingdom was voting to leave the European Union, a newly independent Scotland would be negotiating its own terms of membership. Belonging to the EU and accessing the single European market are fundamental to Scotland’s independence plans, but entry may not be as plain sailing as the SNP’s Alex Salmond has made it out to be—especially since he talks of Scotland joining the EU while at the same time remaining in the sterling area with England.

Some European governments would have reservations about EU membership for an independent Scotland, chiefly because of a possible domino effect that could open the way for other separatist regions, notably Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Flanders, to nurture similar hopes. Europe’s most vocal opponent to Scottish membership is Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose government has so far resisted Catalonian requests for a similar referendum: “It’s very clear to me, as it is to everyone in the world, that a country that would obtain independence from the EU, should remain out of the EU,” he warned. “This is good for Scottish citizens to know, and for all EU citizens to know.”

Jean-Claude Juncker has said he will put a stop to more enlargements “for the next five years” to allow the EU “to consider what has been achieved among the twenty-eight.” Experts believe that an independent Scotland would be admitted in due course, although combining EU membership with remaining in the sterling area, as Salmond wants, would almost certainly be a nonstarter. “All member states are legally obliged to adopt the euro, it is a condition of membership,” Jo Murkens, an expert on Scottish independence and European constitutional law at the London School of Economics, told a foreign affairs panel in Edinburgh.

Another irony in the Scottish independence issue is that the SNP has governed so efficiently, creating what one writer called “a Scotland of social justice, green energy, and black gold”—the latter a reference to North Sea oil, on which are pinned Scottish hopes of financial solvency—that voters may see no point in facing the upheaval that transition to independence will involve. J. K. Rowling, for example, creator of the Harry Potter novels and English-born but a longtime resident of the Scottish capital city, Edinburgh (and therefore eligible to vote in the referendum), contributed 1 million pounds (around $1.6 million) to the “Better Together” campaign because she believes “this separation will not be quick and clean: it will take microsurgery to disentangle three centuries of close interdependence, after which we will have to deal with three bitter neighbors.” Rowling was referring to England, Scotland, and Wales. Hers was not the highest individual campaign contribution: A Scottish couple who had won the national lottery, Christine and Colin Weir, donated 4 million pounds (about $6.5 million) to the “Yes” movement.

Cameron has also, in the manner of Richard Nixon in the 1960s, appealed to the “silent majority” of Scots who oppose independence to speak out. “We’ve heard the noise of the nationalist few, but now it is time for the voices of the silent majority to be heard,” he told a recent meeting of business leaders and party activists. “The silent majority who feel happy being part of the UK; the silent majority who don’t want the risks of going it alone.”

He got a boost from President Obama, who in June astonished many Scots by openly opposing their bid for independence. “We obviously have a deep interest in making sure that one of the closest allies that we will ever have remains strong, robust, and united and an effective partner,” the US president told a press conference following the G7 summit in Brussels.

There was no follow-up question to the president on how the United States was “making sure” Britain stays together. But the administration’s view is clearly that without Scotland the United Kingdom would be weakened as its number one strategic partner. Salmond’s response is that if Scotland becomes independent, the US will have two strategic partners. The SNP is counting on Scotland joining NATO—impossible without American acquiescence—but at the same time, the Scots also want Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines removed from their present base on the shore of Gare Loch, thirteen miles northwest of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, so they can become a country free of nuclear weapons. Redeploying the Tridents would be an expensive, laborious undertaking requiring the cooperation of both London and Washington. Decontamination and decommissioning of the base area where nuclear warheads have been stored since the 1960s would be both costly and time consuming.

Possibly with US support in mind, Salmond has softened his initial hard-line stance on the submarines: his deadline for dismantling the Scottish base is now 2020. He also appears to be more flexible on allowing British and other NATO nuclear-armed ships to call in at Scottish ports, suggesting that Scotland would follow the Danish and Norwegian formula of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

All of which will be moot if the “no” votes have it in the September 18th referendum, dashing the hopes of separatists and giving Cameron a welcome political boost in time for the Conservative Party’s annual conference ten days later in the Midlands city of Birmingham. All three major parties—the Conservatives, Labor, and the Liberal Democrats—have offered the carrot of more autonomous powers to Scotland if the country votes to remain in the United Kingdom.

For his part, Salmond has promised that the referendum would be a once-in-a-generation initiative, and he is regarded as sincere in his commitment to a one-off attempt. But some observers question whether the separatist genie can so easily be put back in the bottle; some even worry that separatism will continue to undermine cross-border relations. At the very least, as the London Daily Telegraph pointed out recently, separatist Scots could end up like the citizens of Quebec, perpetually chasing what the Canadians now refer to as a “neverendum.” At worst, as neighboring Ireland’s troubled history shows, it could lead to years of violence.

At least one historian regards Scottish separatist sentiment as something that had to come to the surface sooner or later as the final consequence of the long decline that has marked British post-imperialism. “The Scots were disproportionately represented in the empire,” says Linda Colley, an English professor of history at Princeton. “I put it to you that if London still controlled half the globe, how many people in Scotland would want to leave the honey pot?”

Roland Flamini is a freelance journalist and former foreign correspondent and bureau chief for Time magazine in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere.

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