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EU breathes a sigh of relief as the Scottish nightmare fails to come true

Sweet dreams. Mark McLaughlin/PA Archive

For the European Union, the prospect of Scottish secession from the UK was a key component of the nightmare scenario of everything falling apart, inside and outside. After all, let’s not forget that there is another UK referendum on the cards – an EU membership vote, currently pencilled in for 2017.

The darkest fear was that a Scottish Yes vote would tee up a British exit from the EU, then spark a grave escalation of political conflict in Spain over Catalonia – and eventually leave Europe dominated by the likes of Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and a broad church of far-right populists.

Various nightmares are already well underway just outside the EU, from Putin’s war in Ukraine to Islamic State beheading hostages in the Levant.

The propagandists of the Kremlin would have relished the Schadenfreude of the British empire’s final humiliating collapse, alongside the renaissance of Putin’s Russian one, completing the revenge for the Crimean war. In short, to many in the EU, a Yes vote almost threatened to begin the end of what they consider “civilised” Europe.

And even at the most practical level of politics, if Cameron had lost Scotland, his premiership would have been over (despite his own insistence he wouldn’t resign). The Conservative party, with its overall Eurosceptic bent, would have elected a successor hellbent on drastic repatriation of powers, or even further opt-outs on a grand scale. Negotiations with the EU would have been unworkable and a referendum on Britain’s EU membership would have ended with a big majority voting to leave.

But in the end, the nightmares did not become real. The majority stuck to the UK with a bigger margin than anyone had dared expect: 55.4% to 44.6%.

Making the case

Brussels’ next thoughts are about how this will affect the UK’s relationship with the EU. The key tension is between emotion and calculation, heart and head. Across the EU, the worry remains that populist emotions will outvote the objective calculations of accountants and economists.

The Scottish vote will give heart to those who just want to keep up the work of getting EU policies right, or at least sorting out their major problems. And there’s plenty of cause for optimism: Britain’s ongoing balance of competence review is increasingly showing that most EU policies are doing what they should do – and that the case for repatriation or secession does not hold water.

Whether that message will filter into the common sense of the British people by time of the speculative 2017 referendum remains to be seen. But hope springs eternal, and Scotland’s decision will have given EU supporters’ hopes a much-needed shot in the arm.

But on the emotional level too, the Scottish experience should help. The English got the shock of their lives when a poll suggested a Yes majority for the first time. Maybe the experience of nearly losing Scotland, and having to grapple with the potential emotional consequences, will make them think twice about leaping back into the unknown with another potentially explosive yes/no vote.

How to do it

Viewed from the continent, there were plenty of reasons to worry about the simplistic and inept management of the referendum, surprising coming from the mother of democracies.

By comparison, Belgium’s handling of its own separatist tendencies in Flanders has been much sounder: a continuing process of constitutional adjustment to the powers of the centre versus the regions, refining the system in a spirit of compromise, rather than forcing it into a binary choice of yes or no, in or out.

If you have to have a referendum, avoid bias in the question, offering alternative 1 versus alternative 2, rather than risking than the Yes that sounds so positive versus the very negative No. Or have three options, independence versus enhanced autonomy versus status quo, and then two rounds if necessary to find the majority. Or do as many democracies that have “constitutional majority” requirements do and demand a “super-majority” of, say, two-thirds for major constitutional change.

But Europe’s concern over all this is no longer warranted. The nightmare did not come true, and Brussels can return to its business – with its own renewed leadership maybe even a bit encouraged to go about its burdensome and unpopular agenda with a bit more confidence.

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