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Sturgeon secures propaganda boost with Brussels meetings

by Jack Schickler | 29.06.2016

With UK politics in turmoil, Nicola Sturgeon is craftily pushing her independence agenda. Unless the next prime minister has an effective response, Edinburgh’s first minister may win.

Immediately after the referendum result showed Scotland wanted to remain in the EU, while the UK did not, Sturgeon said that she intended “to take all possible steps and explore all options … to secure our continuing place in the EU and in the single market in particular”. She warned of a second Scottish independence referendum, if that turned out to be “the best or only way” to maintain EU relations.

Today, Sturgeon is in Brussels, meeting two EU presidents – the European Parliament’s Martin Schulz, and the Commission’s Jean-Claude Juncker. This is a propaganda boost – even if Donald Tusk, representing the other member countries of the EU, declined to see her. Meanwhile, the plea by Sturgeon’s colleague Alyn Smith for the EU to “not let Scotland down” received a standing ovation from fellow members of the European Parliament.

It is clear why feelings have warmed. The fear was that Scottish independence would embolden separatists in other European nations – and those fears may remain. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who faces Catalonian calls for independence, today reminded reporters that “Scotland does not have the competence to negotiate” with the EU.

But, if the UK were no longer an EU member, the analogy with Spain and Catalonia would be weaker. The EU’s interest now is increasingly to show that quitting the bloc is not easy. Welcoming back a part of the UK would help reverse the narrative that it was disintegrating.

Swapping Scotland’s union with England for one with Europe would be economically foolish. It exports four times as much to the rest of the UK as it does to the rest of the EU, as Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, explained today in a speech in Edinburgh. Likewise, border controls – which might be necessary if Scotland joined the single market while the rest of the UK quit it – would be deeply unattractive.

That said, if the UK faces a post-Brexit downturn, the Scots may be so angry that they could be persuaded to take the leap. There would also be some silver linings. For example, Scotland would be well-placed to tempt City financiers and foreign investors looking for a home within the single market.

Sturgeon may try to capitalise on the instability in Westminster by calling a snap referendum to give her the authority to negotiate Scotland’s entry into the EU while quitting the UK – with the idea that the final terms would be put to a subsequent plebiscite.

The best answer to such a manoeuvre would be for Boris Johnson – or whoever is the next prime minster – to make clear his favoured option is for the whole of the UK to stay in the EU’s single market, say by embracing a relationship similar to Norway’s. After all, Sturgeon says she is concerned “in particular” that Scotland stays in the single market.

Without such a response, Boris may soon find himself up trying to fight a canny politician north of the border who has borrowed his slogan: “Vote Leave, Take control”.

Edited by Hugo Dixon