The UK: A far cry from a kingdom united
The UK has had a tumultuous few days. Brexit speculation is ramping up to a dramatic crescendo in the coming days as the House of Lords’ Brexit bill amendments have been approved by the House of Commons. As the ‘EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill’ has now been officially approved by the UK’s two Houses, this leads the way for Prime Minister to trigger Article 50 within days, officially kick-starting the two-year formal negotiation period prior to the UK's full withdrawal from the EU. That said, there have been resolute affirmations from 10 Downing Street that the Brexit countdown will not be triggered until the end of March (as per the outline widely quoted by Theresa May shortly after her ascension to Prime Minister), quashing the widespread press speculation that Article 50 could be triggered as early as this week.
However, during a time in which it’s crucial for the United Kingdom to perpetuate a united front to the nation and indeed to the rest of the world watching Brexit unfold with increasing interest, it seems the country is anything but unified. Brexit has divided many a household and politician—with the main point of debate being Mrs. May’s rough handling of the delicate EU negotiations thus far. Theresa May is steadfast in her “hard Brexit” mentality, vowing to fight for a beneficial deal for the UK, almost to the detriment of sustaining relations with former European Union allies.
The Prime Minister’s refusal to deviate from the proposed withdrawal from the EU despite widespread protestations has been met with consternation from some, with one particularly outspoken disparager being Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland. Whilst an independent country in its own right, Scotland’s wagon is hitched to the UK (both geographically and economically), meaning that when the UK voted ‘Leave’ by a 51-49% margin, that too included Scotland. And, rather like a petulant child, it seems like Scotland isn't going to go quietly—or at least, not if Nicola Sturgeon gets her way.
Prior to the EU Referendum in June 2016, a constitutional referendum was billed by the Scottish National Party as a “once-in-a-generation event”, yet First Minister Sturgeon has once again announced her intentions to spearhead another national vote, which will be Scotland’s third referendum in almost as many years. Its first failed Referendum for Scottish independence came in Autumn 2014, and then when it was made known that a clear majority (62%) of Scots voted ‘Remain’ in the UK's Referendum but lost out to the overall 51% ‘Leave’ majority across the country, whispers then began that another independence referendum could be imminent. This indeed has now come to pass, with Sturgeon now calling for a second Scottish independence referendum by Spring 2019, citing reasons including the immovability of Theresa May’s bargaining strategy with the EU among others. Of the informal EU negotiations that have taken place since the EU Referendum decision in June of last year, Sturgeon has bemoaned the fact that “all of [Scotland’s] efforts at compromise have been met with a brick wall of intransigence”, before calling her troops to arms with a rousing battle-cry: “Scotland stands at a hugely important crossroads…What is at stake is the kind of country we will become.”
However, this is not as simple as first it seems. Despite senior Scottish politicians confident that an independence vote for Scotland would therefore mean that they can stay in the European Union in their own terms, it seems there is a lot of hurdles to be overcome first—and even still, there is no steadfast guarantee that an independent Scotland would receive the unanimous approval of all 28 remaining member states that EU membership necessitates. Before the UK Referendum in June, two staunch opposers of Scotland joining the European Union were Spain and Belgium, two countries who believe that promoting and rewarding smaller nations gaining independence could set a dangerous precedent which could further destabilise the future of Europe.
In Spain’s case, their main worry is Catalonia and the Basque Country, which according to the London School of Economics and Political Science is led by “an incumbent Catalan government [who] continues to seek secession, and has vowed to pursue a referendum and independence with or without the consent of the Spanish government, which hitherto has refused to negotiate on the issue”. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in the wake of the Brexit vote rather dramatically declared his opinions on the subject: “I want to be very clear Scotland does not have the competence to negotiate with the European Union. Spain opposes any negotiation by anyone other than the government of United Kingdom. I am extremely against it, the treaties are extremely against it and I believe everyone is extremely against it. If the United Kingdom leaves...Scotland leaves”. Given such an extreme reaction, it seems that Mr. Rajoy’s position on the subject is unlikely to have changed in the 9 months since the decision. Likewise, Belgium is also a country in fear of the personal repercussions that accepting an independent Scotland could cause. Irish MP Ruairi Quinn speculated as early as 2014 on the subject of Belgium vetoing an independent Scotland, justifying that Belgium is “extremely worried…a Scottish precedent would really encourage the now very rich region of Flanders to secede from the Kingdom, [which] would impoverish Belgium”.
So it seems that Sturgeon is leading a revolution which could in fact result in a break from the UK and rejected from Europe, leaving the country dangerously isolated in the global world. It’s a huge risk to take, especially for one with such an uncertain outcome. And even if Scotland did have a chance of joining the EU, such massive legislative requirements like adopting the Euro as its main currency could see an independent Scotland becoming very different to the country we know today.
Whether the Scottish people will respond to Sturgeon’s impassioned pleas (and in fact whether the country will even tolerate another referendum) remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain—the UK is far from being united. Nobody knows what is going to happen in the run-up to, and indeed after, Brexit, but all we know for sure is that at a time when it’s imperative that we all stick together, it looks as if the UK is falling apart.