A Tale of Two Unions
Since the independence referendum in 2014 one of the most consequential changes we now face is that of our relationship with the rest of Europe. This has fundamentally changed the constitutional debate in Scotland with many voters who previously supported the Union now backing Independence. The UK leaving the EU against the will of the overwhelming majority of Scots also provided the ‘material change of circumstances’ in our relationship with the UK. It was on that basis that voters gave the Scottish Government a significant mandate to hold an independence referendum in 2016 and in every parliamentary election since.
Since EU membership is such an important part of the discussion around Scotland’s future and place within the UK, it is worth exploring the differences between the two Unions. Scots are not unique in their aspirations for EU membership and most of Europe’s democratic states are either EU members or want to join, with Ukraine and Moldova the most recent to obtain candidate status in June 2022.
The clearest difference between the two Unions is that one is a club for independent states, the other isn’t. All 27 Member States consider themselves independent and sovereign, the same cannot be said for membership of the UK. It is only at Westminster where ‘mainstream’ politicians consider EU membership and independence as being incompatible. That view is very much on the fringes elsewhere in Europe where EU membership is very much seen as strengthening a country’s sovereignty. The Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney summed up the view you will find in most European capitals when he said Ireland’s EU membership ‘has strengthened, rather than diminished, our independence’.
The EU is Treaty based organisation where Member States work as equals regardless of their size, be it tiny Malta with half a million citizens or Germany with a population of 83 million. These states together agree the rules that govern their interactions and the workings of the institutions. They pool and share sovereignty in partnership negotiating with each other building a Union that has shaped Europe over the past seven decades delivering unprecedented levels of peace, stability and prosperity to its citizens. Where there is discontent with legislation and other binding agreements, states and citizens have recourse to the European Court of Justice which acts as an arbiter with judges from all member states.
Furthermore, if a state wishes to leave this Union, then they are free to do so at a time of their choosing. Article 50 of the Treaty allows a State to start the process of leaving the Union giving the other Member States two years notice of its intention. This is the process by which the UK left. No Member State was able to stop the UK from leaving, and although disappointed to see the UK go, none tried to stop it. There is no such process for a constituent part of the UK to leave even when the Scottish Government is given repeated electoral mandates to do so by the electorate and by greater margins than any UK Government received in leaving the EU and negotiating those terms.
In summary, the EU is a club for independent states, who treat one another as equals and see membership as a means of strengthening their sovereignty. The UK isn’t such an entity with Westminster having supremacy over the devolved institutions in a way that would be utterly incompatible with the system of partnership and negotiation that exists in the EU. Recognising the differences is important in making informed decisions with, in my opinion, the European Union now providing a credible and more attractive style of partnership than that which that binds the UK.