Two Unions or no Union

by David Hannay | 18.04.2016

The referendum vote on 23 June will determine whether Britain remains in the European Union or leaves it. The negative consequences to leave that Union are being hotly debated. But less attention has so far been given to the negative consequences of such a decision on that other Union which joins together the peoples of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in a United Kingdom.

Perhaps the issues are less clear-cut and less immediate. They are not, however, less real; and they do need to be thought about, particularly by those who are deeply attached to the continued existence of the United Kingdom but are contemplating voting to leave the EU.         

The case of Scotland is relatively obvious. On the assumption that Scotland votes to remain in the EU — and with pretty well every party in Scotland except UKIP campaigning to remain, that must look highly probable –, an overall UK vote to leave would pose a major constitutional contradiction. Would this trigger a demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence? It would seem a little foolhardy to assert it would not.

Nor would the Scots have to make up their minds in a rush since the two-year period (or possibly more) to negotiate Britain’s withdrawal laid down in Art. 50 of the EU Treaty would leave Scotland both the time and the opportunity to appreciate the damaging consequences of actually leaving.

Moreover the possible difficulties in Brussels over a Scottish bid for accession would look rather different than they did at the time of the Scottish independence referendum since the proposition would be that Scotland should remain in the EU, rather than be forced to leave against its democratically expressed will.

The case of Wales is less obvious given that the support there for independence is so much lower. But the assumption that there would be no negative consequences for the unity of the U.K. if a Welsh vote to remain was overridden would seem a little rash.       

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And then there is Northern Ireland, where the possible negative consequences do not hinge exclusively on whether the people of Northern Ireland themselves vote to remain or to leave. If a UK vote to leave were implemented by any trading arrangement other than the UK joining the European Economic Area and thus retaining its access to the Single Market, then there would need once again to be customs controls on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

And, if Britain, outside the EU, wanted to impose effective restrictions on the free movement of EU citizens, it is rather hard to see the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland being sustainable, however frantically the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland may protest to the contrary.

Moreover if Britain leaves the EU, much of the underpinning of cooperation on justice and home affairs which has enabled that cooperation to be de-politicised by processes like the European Arrest Warrant would be at risk. To assert that the Good Friday agreement would emerge from all that upheaval unscathed would seem little short of the heroic.

The sensitivity of all these issues is not in doubt. But that is a bad reason not to debate them calmly and rationally.

David Hannay is a former UK ambassador to the EU and UN. He was involved in Britain’s accession negotiations to the European Economic Community and was Britain’s Permanent Representative in Brussels when the UK helped to draft the Single European Act, which provided the foundation for the Single Market.

Edited by Geert Linnebank