Scotland’s vote on Brexit: How local politics play a role in European integration

On October, 14th 2016, AMU hosted an OREMA seminar called “The Politics and Geopolitics of Brexit.” I attended it, hoping to grasp what I had missed regarding the outcome of the June 23rd referendum. Not only did the speakers fulfill my expectations but their presentations provided me with material to better understand the inner difficulties of the European Union as a political project. One point made by Pr. Gilles Leydier* can especially illustrate this. As a specialist of Scotland and the SNP he argued that the vote against Brexit was less a declaration of love for the EU than a good old-fashioned political move to increase their power within the UK polity.

Affiche promotionnelle, Création & Impression : DEPIL/PSI – Imprimerie d’Aix-Marseille Université – Aix-en-Provence

In spite of the results, 62% voted to remain (success across the political board, Labour 75%, SNP 66%, Conservatives 56%) something else was at play. Just as most pro EUish (just about anyone who is remotely in favor to some degree of a union) French newspapers, like here (http://www.huffingtonpost.fr/2016/06/24/royaume-desuni-l-cosse-et-lirlande-du-nord-ont-vote-contre-le/) I had considered Scotland as ‘Europhile’ because I had overlooked what it meant, politically and the short term, to vote to remain.

Pr. Leydier, reminded the audience that the first referendum had been possible because the British Parliament had granted the legal means for the Scottish government to set up a referendum on their own. He continued by pointing out that the path to a second referendum would be unlikely because the legal window was soon to close. The Scottish government would need to ask the British Parliament for their consent which would, in turn, be unlikely as the Scottish people had just had their referendum, and voted to remain in the UK.

However, M. Leydier explained, that the SNP having been voted in on the basis of an Independence agenda, the unexpected outcome of Brexit provided them with a golden opportunity to threaten and pressure England into giving them as much autonomy as possible. To do so, the SNP government could frame the English Brexit vote as a threat to their vital interests and to back their claim for independence, all the while knowing that they did not have the legal means to deliver on their threats.

This may seem a matter of details but for anyone like me who grew up full of hope regarding the European Union, the current state of affairs seems gloomy to say the least. Europhiles from all parties have had difficulties in coming up with a way to deal with European political integration and the ‘loss’ of national sovereignty. The case of Scotland’s behavior at the outcome of Brexit brings a new way to understand this. It hints at the dual nature of the EU policies. They may be framed by the ruling parties of each member state as either domestic (legitimate) or foreign (invasive, infringing on national sovereignty). Therefore, the attachment shown by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, to the EU all the while spiting its metropole, can account for the tendency of EU members to use the EU in local political equations. The problem being that this behavior inevitably contributes to the EU’s recurring instability.

*Professor at the University of Toulon, specialized in British and Scottish politics, here is a link to his full profile: http://babel.univ-tln.fr/2010/12/gilles-leydier/.