The leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, could hardly have imagined that the Scottish referendum would be conducted in such turbulent times in Europe or used as a tool to justify the annexation of Crimea.
Will Scotland end the 307-year-old union with the rest of the United Kingdom? Photo: Reuters
In 2007 when the leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond proposed a referendum on Scottish independence, he could hardly have imagined that it would be held in the context of an acute international crisis, and that the political map of Europe would have changed its contours.
It is unlikely to have occurred to Salmond that somewhere else in the Old World, similar goals would be achieved faster, and that one of Europe’s largest countries, following a wave of popular demonstrations, would be on the brink of a full-scale civil war.
And only in his worst nightmare could this Scottish politician have dreamed that his brainchild would be used to justify the legality of another referendum — one that led to a change in the nationality of the Crimean peninsula.
However, Salmond is not the only person to be taken aback by the rapid collapse of the pillars of the existing world order, which only a few months ago seemed quite stable.
Arms control agreements are being torn up. The strategic objectives of major international organizations are being revised. And, instead of negotiations on free trade, the great powers are engaged in a sanctions war. As a result, hopes for international cooperation in addressing global challenges are crumbling to dust.
And amidst all this there is Scotland, with its cherished and suddenly not so frivolous referendum on independence. It is almost past time to ask the question: Should the Scots rein in their horses so as not to further agitate Old Mother Europe?
Europeans seem to be aware of the potential negative scenarios that could ensue, and are preparing themselves accordingly. Scotland’s membership in the European Union and NATO could be up for negotiation; the post-imperial syndrome of “widowed” Britons could require further treatment; and the aspirations of the Walloon and Basque separatists in France and Spain might need to be addressed.
All this can be done — but only if the EU has the will, unity and consistency to achieve it. But are Europeans ready to meet all of these “Scottish” challenges here and now, when all the continent’s political resources are being used to contain the growling Russian bear to the east?
Why Scotland's referendum is not the same like Crimea's one
The hailstorm of Ukrainian referenda in 2014 (Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk) has given the Scottish referendum a new and completely unexpected resonance. It’s all gone off script.
Of course, the Scots have run a near exemplary campaign with thousands of negotiations at various levels and every possible consequence of independence weighed into the balance, right up to and including the future distribution of school lunches.
But they could not have foreseen that their plebiscite would look like an exhibition game of the national soccer team after an improvised street tournament for teenagers, all demanding the same respectful attitude and equal attention.
But no matter how politicians in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk try to show that, despite the differing amount of thought and planning behind the referenda, the rules of the game are the same everywhere, and that what happened in Ukraine just a few months ago can equally be called a “referendum,” one or two formidable obstacles remain.
Let’s not discuss the obvious trappings that adorned the hastily arranged referenda in Ukraine, such as the invisible or not so invisible presence of various “polite men” in uniform, the lack of transparency in the counting of votes, etc.
Ultimately, all this can be put down to the extraordinary circumstances that prevailed in the aftermath of the fall of Viktor Yanukovych. But there are some differences between the events in Ukraine and Scotland that nullify any possibility of drawing parallels and using the Scottish example to justify the results of the people’s say in Ukraine.
First, from a legal perspective, the referenda in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk cannot be considered legitimate, since the Ukrainian authorities did not approve them. What form these authorities had at the time is a separate issue, but the fact remains: no consent, no legitimacy. As for the referendum in Scotland, its legitimacy is not in doubt, since on October 15, 2012, the governments of the UK and Scotland signed a corresponding agreement.
Second, in a political sense, the Ukrainian referenda were de facto less about the regions’ independence from Ukraine than about their reunification with Russia. There was (and is) much talk about Russia’s historical claim to these areas, the desire of Russian-speaking Ukrainians to become Russian citizens, etc. And hardly anyone would deny that Russia, as an external force, influenced the outcome of the vote in various ways.
The pro-independence voices in Scotland have declared their desire for full independence, with the prospect of Scotland joining the EU as a separate member country. Instead of a conservative “reunion” and the recovery of lost historical status, we see the Scots’ desire to write a new page in their history. There is no obvious external force directly influencing voters in Scotland.
Conservatism and progressivism are two entirely understandable desires that different nations and peoples experience in different historical circumstances. Their will can and should be respected. But how can one be held up as an example to another? How can your neighbor’s wish to relocate from the country to the city be used to justify your move from the city to the country? Especially if your relatives there insist on your move, while your neighbor has no one to rely on but himself?
Third and finally, no matter how radical the initiatives of the Scottish separatists may seem, they stem entirely from within the system and are not aimed at destroying the existing rules and regulations of intergovernmental relations. By casting a ballot in the referendum, the people of Scotland are not making what in Ukraine is described as a “civilizational choice.” If independence wins through, they will separate from the UK, not from Europe, whereupon they have no desire whatsoever to undo the existing world order.
The pro-Russian referenda in Ukraine in this respect were far more radical and value-oriented. The ensuing events led to some highly significant systemic shifts and undermined the foundations of the Western world. On that basis, the indignant cry of “Why are the Scots allowed, but we’re not?” from the lips of the initiators of the Ukrainian plebiscites rings hollow.
Let’s be clear, Scotland can because it is playing by the rules, while Luhansk and Crimea can’t for the same reason in reverse. Many Russian politicians who supported the referenda in Ukraine openly opine that, “We are not bound by Western norms and values.” If so, why invoke the Scottish referendum to justify their actions, when the former was organized in full accordance with those self-same norms and values?
Scotland’s choice will be known soon. The marked increase in the number of pro-independence supporters in recent polls makes it too close to call — further evidence of the dissimilarity of the Ukrainian and Scottish referenda. But the word is the same in both cases, and that fact will be exploited for political purposes, no matter what.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.