Large parts of the UK, including Wales, London and Manchester, will vote in local and devolved elections on Thursday 6 May. Much international attention, however, will be on the results of the Scottish parliament election, with the pro-independence Scottish National Party, which has been in government since 2007, on course to win a fourth term.
The SNP and its allies insist that if they win a majority, they will have an unarguable mandate for a second vote on independence from the UK, following a 2014 referendum in which voters opposed separation by 55 to 45 per cent. The UK government, led by the Conservatives under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, rejects that argument, setting up a defining political conflict for the coming years.
In Europe, attitudes to a second Scottish referendum revolve around three main issues: trying to avoid encouraging some of Europe’s own secessionist movements, non-interference in the affairs of an ally, and European defence.
First, some European countries are wary of being seen to sanction the principle that secessionist authorities should be allowed to hold referenda on independence if they win regional elections. This is an especially acute issue for the Spanish government, which has tried to contain bids for Catalan independence for years. In 2017, an attempt by regional authorities to hold an unsanctioned independence referendum was severely opposed by Madrid. Pro-Catalan independence leaders were jailed or fled into self-exile following the vote, though the movement for secession continues: in regional elections held earlier this year, pro-independence parties won more than half of the vote for the first time.
The Spanish government is conscious that being seen to condone efforts to break up the UK could embolden Catalan parties – and in the longer term, perhaps Basque ones too. Some in the Scottish and Catalan separatist movements see parallels between them. Catalan flags can occasionally be seen in the windows of the SNP’s Westminster offices, although some figures in the party tell me that they view linking the two causes – thus alienating Spain – as unhelpful.
Second, most countries would be wary of being seen to intervene in what is – for the moment – an internal UK dispute. During the 2014 referendum, European governments mostly avoided making comments that could be interpreted as taking sides in the debate. A partial exception was Spain, whose foreign minister at the time implicitly contrasted Catalan and Scottish independence. He remarked that his government would support Scotland joining the EU if a vote to leave the UK were conducted legally, thus implicitly discrediting a future vote in Catalonia, as the Spanish constitution bans secession.
Finally, there are also security concerns for UK allies. A few months before the 2014 referendum, then-president Barack Obama’s cautious statement that the US wanted the UK to remain “strong, robust, united and effective” was viewed as partly motivated by Washington’s desire to uphold its military alliance with the UK. Especially in eastern Europe, many worry about what Scottish independence would mean for the UK’s nuclear arsenal, based in Faslane, Scotland, which the SNP supports the removal of.
Yet, following Brexit, there is now instinctive sympathy among European leaders for Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s stated aim of leaving the UK and rejoining the EU. An unguarded moment during the campaign for the 2017 French presidential elections, in which Emmanuel Macron mischievously quipped “vive l’Écosse européenne” – “long live European Scotland” – probably best captures the shift in mood, although Macron has been more circumspect since taking office.
The process of Scotland leaving the UK and acceding to the EU would be complicated and take several years. Key questions would include the future of the UK’s nuclear weapons, which currency Scotland would use, how to manage the border between an England outside of the European single market and a Scotland within it, and Scotland’s budget deficit. Though difficult, these are probably not insurmountable obstacles to independence.
The key concern for European countries is that they do not want to be seen to encourage the break-up of an ally and military partner. But if separation were managed legally, the EU should, in principle, be open to fulfilling Sturgeon’s vision of Scotland in Europe.