Saturday 25 October 2014

Enda Kenny may be asked to back our Celtic cousins in EU membership row

Published 26/08/2014 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Collins

A simple question will be put to Scotland's four million voters on September 18: 'Should Scotland be an independent country?'

But the detailed implications of a 'Yes' vote will be felt far beyond the borders of Scotland, with huge implications for the island of Ireland. In Brussels, and across many other member-state capitals, a 'Yes' to independence poses huge challenges and has already led to tensions at many levels. Taoiseach Enda Kenny could be also posed with a serious dilemma at EU level. Kenny may be publicly asked to back our Celtic cousins in a row over future membership - bringing separatist and Celtic issues in these islands to the top of the political agenda for the first time since 1922.

In many ways, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond set out to bring a European dimension to this referendum long before it seemed likely such a plebiscite would ever take place. Salmond has been a frequent visitor to Brussels and his party's MEPs have worked hard on tracking all the possible EU implications of future independence.

In April of this year Salmond chose Bruges, just up the road from Brussels, to make a landmark speech on the issue. He argued that Scotland could be pulled out of the EU against its will because of the anti-European strain within the British Conservative Party. He emphasised the pro-EU sympathies of most Scots compared with "a virulent strain" of Euroscepticism found elsewhere.

He said David Cameron's pledge to hold an in/out referendum on EU in 2017 could result in Scotland being "dragged out".

The Scottish National Party leader added: "There is virtually no support for this step in the Scottish parliament."

Scotland's right to EU membership has been a significant issue right through the independence referendum debate. In Bruges, Salmond argued that four British prime ministers - John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron - had, to Scotland's detriment, failed to deliver on their promises to "put Britain at the heart of the EU".

But Salmond has had his own difficulties on the issue. Last year he was criticised for saying his government in Edinburgh had received legal advice to the effect that an independent Scotland would automatically remain in the EU. It subsequently emerged that such advice did not exist.

Salmond is not the only one to make a blunder on this issue. Last February, outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, without specifically naming Scotland, said it would be hard for a breakaway state to win EU membership.

Barroso said all EU states would need to back the membership of any new country that emerged from a current member state. "It would be extremely difficult to get approval of all the other member states . . . I believe it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible," he said.

The Commission boss was of course seen as saying that Britain, or what would be left of it, may successfully block Scotland's EU ambitions. But that may not be the only issue - or even the issue at all.

Many observers speculate that London might make a virtue out of the necessity of a Scottish 'Yes' vote and extend all neighbourly courtesy and support to counterparts in Edinburgh. For many in Brussels, the real enemy of an independent Scotland in the EU could be Spain first and foremost, and then other states such as Belgium, France, Italy and others who face sporadic regional problems with secessionist undertones.

In Spain the issues are real and immediate. The Catalonian government in Barcelona is holding a referendum on independence in November - just weeks after Scotland. Madrid fears a domino effect, losing not just wealthy Catalonia, but the Basque country, Gallicia and other regions. For Madrid, an independent Scotland's EU ambitions constitute a very dangerous precedent with domestic implications.

France also has its minority of secessionists in Corsica and Brittany; Italy has a wealthy northern grouping asking why it must subsidise a southern population it claims is indolent and corrupt; the majority and better-off Flemish speakers in Belgium are being heard to argue the merits of separating from the French-speaking Walloons.

It all means that Spain might lay claim to considerable political support in a Scottish EU test case.

This in turn would put a spotlight on the Taoiseach. Would he emulate all his predecessors since the foundation of this State and shun all those voicing hopes of Scottish independence?

Or, would he signal a significant sea change in attitude?

In assessing the latter option, Mr Kenny would have to take into account a majority vote by a near-neighbouring State with which we have major links all across the island. The issues would cross-cut others involving Northern Ireland and Dublin-London relations.

For this, and other reasons, the Dublin Government will have fingers and toes crossed for a 'No' vote on September 18.

John Downing

Political correspondent John Downing reported EU affairs from Brussels for the Irish Independent from 1989-99.

Irish Independent

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