Saturday 16 September 2023

Would anyone recognise an independent Scotland?


Few people in Britain would notice a football match between Romania and Kosovo in the qualifying round of the European championship. The match was stopped because of Romanian fans chanting and banners proclaiming that Kosovo is Serbia. Even this would not be especially interesting except for what it tells us about the political situation in Scotland.

There is a certain oddity too. Romania has played England on numerous occasions. There has been no chanting that England is the UK. Likewise, it is likely that Romania has played against the Faroe Islands. There have been no banners telling the Faroese players that the Faroe Islands are Denmark. Why are Romanian fans so interested in opposing the independence of Kosovo?

The problem with Kosovo is that it achieved independence by means of a unilateral declaration of independence. The war in Yugoslavia eventually gave rise to six new states seven if we include Kosovo, but Kosovo is the most problematic. The reason is that it was part of Serbia, and the Serbs were not and still are not willing to recognise that independence.

There were special circumstances behind Kosovo’s declaration of independence. The Kosovo War involved the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) in a civil war against the Kosovo Liberation Army. This led to the attempt to expel Kosovar civilians and the intervention of NATO.

Most Western countries due to these circumstances recognised the independence of Kosovo, but it set a precedent that was later used by Russia to justify the independence from Ukraine of Crimea and the Donbas. It is this precedent also that means that Kosovo is not universally recognised today.

Five EU member states Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece do not recognise Kosovo’s independence. But all EU member states would need to recognize Kosovo before it could join the EU.

Why don’t these EU states recognise Kosovo? The reason is that it is not just the UK that has secession movements. Spain worries particularly about Catalonia being allowed to declare independence unilaterally. Slovakia worries about Hungarians and Rusyns (similar to Ukrainians). Cyprus worries about Turks in Northern Cyprus. Romania worries about Hungarians in Transylvania and on its border with Hungary. Greece worries about Albanians and Macedonians.

The borders of Europe exist for historical reasons most frequently due to wars. There are any number of formerly independent states which merged. Some states gained territory in the past while others lost.  Poland lost its eastern territories to Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania and gained its western territories from Germany. Austria and Hungary ruled much of central Europe until 1918, but now are small. Italy gained South Tyrol after the First World War, but the majority living there are German speakers. Once you go down the route of allowing formerly independent states to gain independence especially by means of unilateral declarations, the fear is that chaos would result and most likely war.

There are too many formerly independent states with conflicting territorial claims. There are too many past injustices about borders. There are too many ancient battles that could be refought like Bannockburn 1314 or Kosovo 1389.

It is in this context that the Supreme Courts judgement on the legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament legislating for a second referendum on independence is crucial. The SNP compared Scotland to Kosovo. But the historical context is quite different. The British Army has not attacked Scotland and attempted to expel its population. There has been no civil war in the United Kingdom. Scots have the same rights to live and work and vote as everyone else. There has been no oppression at all.

The Supreme Court ruled that Scotland was not a colony and therefore was simply part of the UK in the same way as Catalonia is part of Spain and the South Tyrol is part of Italy. The right to self-determination only applies to colonies, it doesn’t apply to the parts of modern European democracies. If it did then every formerly independent part of France or Germany would have the right to leave whenever it wanted.

We already have self-determination because we live in nation state where we each have a vote for Parliament. It is not undemocratic if Burgundy votes differently to France. If it were, democracy would everywhere be impossible.

This is what everyone else thinks in Europe. There is not a single EU member state that will grant a legal referendum to a part seeking independence.  

But let’s say the SNP the right. Let’s imagine that Scotland is indeed like Kosovo and that a vicious civil war had just been fought. The Scottish Parliament unilaterally declares independence. What would be the result?

Well, we already know from Kosovo. Five EU member states would not recognise the independence of Scotland. Romanian football fans would proclaim that Scotland was part of the UK. Scotland would not obtain EU membership because these five, perhaps more would oppose it.

Even under the best case scenario which obtained in 2014, with UK cooperation and permission to hold a legal referendum, it would have been necessary to persuade countries like Spain that Scottish independence did not constitute a dangerous precedent that Catalans might exploit.

If the former UK had argued for recognition of Scottish independence and had done all it could to help Scotland diplomatically then it is likely that eventually Scotland would have been allowed to join the EU.

But the SNP has not been arguing for this best case scenario. It has been arguing either to legislate for its own referendum on independence or to hijack a General Election or a Scottish Parliament Election. 

But all of these methods amount to a unilateral declaration of independence. So long as the UK Government does not recognise whatever method the SNP chooses to assert Scottish independence then the SNP is left with nothing but a unilateral declaration.

But Scotland is not Kosovo. No one is being oppressed. What’s more no one internationally thinks that Scots are being oppressed or that Scotland is a colony. If the SNP went down the route of a unilateral declaration of independence, it would obtain for Scotland even less recognition than Kosovo has received.

Kosovo rightly had the sympathy of much of the international community, but why would anyone think a unilateral declaration of independence was justified in Scotland?

If Scotland could obtain independence without the UK’s permission and that is really what the SNP is arguing, then anyone in Europe could set out to split from the country they are now in or to join another that they used to be part of. If Scotland could obtain independence because it once was independent hundreds of years ago, then anyone could.

The SNP’s latest ruse of claiming it will negotiate independence if it wins more seats in Scotland than any other party could easily be obtained in the following circumstance.

SNP 24 seats 35% of the vote
Labour 23 Seats 36% of vote
Conservatives 6 seats 15% of the vote
Lib Dems 4 seats 10% of vote.

Imagine the precedent this would set if it succeeded. The SNP would be saying to every breakaway movement in Europe you too can leave Spain or France by winning around a third of the vote in any election you choose to describe as a vote on secession even if another party wins more votes and parties opposed to independence win the majority of the vote.

Under these circumstances the threat to every state’s territorial integrity would be such that Scotland would not gain any recognition at all. There would be zero chance of joining the EU.

There is no constitutional principle that can turn a General Election into a referendum on independence. The SNP is acting unilaterally in supposing that it can define it in this way, and it would have to act unilaterally to obtain independence if the British Government didn’t agree with the SNP’s assessment that it had won independence with 35% of the vote.

Unilateral declarations are possible and might even succeed. But as the example of Kosovo shows this route won’t lead to EU membership. There is no prospect of Kosovo joining the EU.

The SNP needs to stop pretending that there is any alternative to waiting patiently. There is not.

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