Would Scotland be forced to join the euro?

Osborne uses the most devastating weapon in the No campaign's arsenal.

The logic of George Osborne leading the charge against Alex Salmond is slowly revealing itself. The government's trump card is that an independent Scotland could be forced to join the euro, and the Chancellor is the man to play it. He told ITV News last night: "Alex Salmond has said he'd want Scotland to join the euro and you have to ask yourself is that the currency you want to be joining at the moment."

In fact, Salmond's stance on the euro is considerably more nuanced than Osborne suggests. True, in 2009, the First Minister quipped that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and argued that euro membership was becoming increasingly attractive ("the parlous state of the UK economy has caused many people in the business community and elsewhere to view membership favourably"). But that, to put it mildly, is no longer the case and, consequently, Salmond has changed tact. Like Gordon Brown circa 2003, he now states that Scotland will retain the pound until it is in the country's "economic interests" to join the euro.

But last night Osborne refused to guarantee that Scotland could keep sterling. In truth, this was a bit of mischievous politicking by the Chancellor (no one believes that the UK would stop Scotland using the pound) but the Treasury has warned that it could ban Scotland from printing Scottish bank notes (just as the eurozone requires all members to use identical bank notes) and ensure that it has no say over valuation decisions, a situation comparable to Kosovo's membership of the euro.

The SNP has since come out fighting, declaring that "the more a Tory chancellor tries to lay down the law to Scotland, the stronger support for independence will become" but this is uncomfortable territory for the party. A spokesman for John Swinney, the Scottish finance secretary, insisted that the currency situation was "crystal clear" but in reality it is several shades of grey.

EU law currently requires all new member states to join the euro area once the necessary conditions are fulfilled. As a briefing note by the House of Commons library states:

EU Member States, with the exception of Denmark and the UK, are expected to join the single currency if and when they meet the criteria. Five of the twelve states joining the EU since 2004 have gone on to join the euro. Whether Scotland joined the euro would have implications for its post-independence monetary policy, and the size of its liability for loans provided to countries facing sovereign debt problems.

Whether or not Scotland kept the UK's derogation from the euro would be dependent on the will of other EU member states. There is no precedent for a devolved part of an EU country becoming independent. For once, we really would be in uncharted territory.

Thus, there is sufficient legal uncertainty for Osborne to speculate that Scotland could be forced to join the euro. And that is the most devastating weapon in the No campaign's arsenal.

Update: I should have added that Sweden, of course, has no official opt-out from the euro but has not joined the single currency after voting no in the 2003 referendum. The country is not party to the ERM II Central Bank Agreement (part of the criteria for euro membership) giving it a de facto opt-out.

Should this precedent apply to an independent Scotland, it would similarly not be forced to join. But this is hardly the cast-iron guarantee that many Scottish voters will want.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.