The year 2014: In the referendum on Scottish independence, Scots reject the idea of independence for their country by 55.3% to 44.7%. The year 2016: Britain votes to leave the European Union by 51.9% to 48.1%. The year 2020: Brexit is completed – the United Kingdom, and with it England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, is no longer part of the EU.
Where do we stand in 2023? Is a second referendum likely? And could an independent Scotland become a member of the EU? About 30 participants discussed this topic on Wednesday, 25th October, together with Kirsty Hughes from the Scottish Centre on European Relations and Mark Lazarowicz, a Scottish lawyer who was a Labour MP in the UK Parliament for many years. The online event was hosted by Geoff Tranter, Chair of the Anglo-German Society.
Meeting had a “European spirit”
At the beginning, the two speakers were given 15 minutes to make their positions clear. This was to focus on three major questions: First, how likely is it that Scotland will actually become independent of the UK? Secondly, what problems could arise from Scottish independence? And third, would the European Union welcome Scotland into its ranks?
Kirsty Hughes started by praising the “European spirit” of the event. She herself was attending the event from Edinburgh, moderator Geoff Tranter and many participants were in Germany, and Mark Lazarowicz in Poland. According to Ms Hughes, Scottish independence is very uncertain at the moment. However, Hughes believes that the elected Scottish Parliament has increased the “sense of separateness” between Scotland and the UK. In addition, EU membership had been a big argument for staying in the UK and against independence in the 2014 referendum. Since Brexit, of course, this argument is null and void. At the moment, however, the pro-independence polls were not promising enough for another attempt at a referendum to be a prospect. With the opinion polls at 50/50, Hughes says, the political pressure is not high enough. This dynamic could change, however, if the polls were to go up to 55 per cent in favour of independence.
This does not seem to be the case at the moment because independence is not the first priority for the people of Scotland, Ms Hughes declares. They were currently more concerned with inflation, the health system and the crisis in the ferry system.
The Brexit impact
On the question of whether the EU would accept Scotland, Kirsty Hughes’ answer was more clear-cut: “Yes, as long as the process of independence is handled as in a referendum.” She also said that the EU had sympathy for the Scots, because a majority of them voted to remain in the EU in the Brexit referendum and were “taken out of the EU against their will”. EU accession would also not be as difficult as with the Western Balkan states. They would have to put certain rules in place and bring down the national deficit, but it would be doable.
Mark Lazarowicz was much more doubtful. He quoted the SNP politician Kate Forbes, who had once suggested (humorously) that the second coming of Jesus would be more likely than Scottish independence. He said he was against independence and also thought it extremely unlikely, even in the distant future. He pointed out that UK Supreme Court had issued a judgment that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to hold such a referendum.
On the question of how England would react to Scottish independence, he said “it depends on the circumstances”. Would it be a “messy split” or an orderly referendum? He also brought up the issue of free trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK. How would that be handled at the borders? Drawing on the experience of family law, he said: “Even if a couple want an amicable divorce, it can still end up in conflict.”
A respectful discussion on a highly debated topic
Parallel to the presentations, a number of questions accumulated in the chat. “Should the calls for independence not be heard?”, and another participant’s prompt response to this was: “Should those who want to stay in the UK be forced out?”
It was obvious that this issue is very important and emotional for both sides. Despite this, the tone of the discussion remained very respectful. On some points, however, Kirsty Hughes and Mark Lazarowicz were simply too far apart. For example, Lazarowicz estimated that Scottish independence would be implemented, if a referendum were to be permitted, in 15-20 years at the earliest from now. Hughes, on the other hand, said it would not be that long: “I guess we just have to disagree on that.”
Finally, moderator Geoff Tranter asked whether a reunification of Ireland with Northern Ireland would be more likely to happen sooner than Scottish independence. Kirsty answered that it was neck-and-neck, while Mark Lazarowicz suggested both were unlikely, again referencing Kate Forbes’ comments about the second coming of Jesus. However, they were able to agree on one point: if one of them happened, it would have a domino effect on the other.