Europe, so often the rock on which Conservative hopes foundered, is now causing considerable trouble for Alex Salmond.
The Scottish First Minister has long campaigned for Scottish separation under the slogan ‘independence in Europe’. Leaving aside his difficulty in justifying the departure from one Union only to become a junior member of another, this has always been a tricky proposal to sell.
The main reason for the SNP’s vulnerability has been that no-one has really ever known how Scotland could leave an existing member state and automatically become another one in its own right – not without having to drop all the opt outs and advantages that the UK has squeezed out of Brussels over the decades.
Indeed, it was probably because the issues surrounding this problem have been so opaque that Salmond has tried to be so definite about it. Scotland’s transition from being a member of the United Kingdom to being a member of the European Union would be ‘seamless’, the SNP leader insisted.
Scots were existing members of the EU so it would be easy for them to continue to be so, just under a different guise – that was what we were told. But then, as it started to emerge from Brussels that Scotland would have to re-apply for membership, so the rhetoric changed.
The word ‘seamless’ was dropped. In its place came the argument that of course Scotland would have to negotiate the form of EU membership it wanted, but that would take place at the same time as negotiations with the UK Government on separation. This would mean that, by the time Independence Day came about, Scotland would have had more than enough time to negotiate its position within the EU, earning an easy transition into the European family of nations.
Underlying this argument was the assumption that, because Scotland does not already use the euro, it would not be forced to adopt it as its currency and nor would Scotland be forced to accede to all the treaties and agreements that the UK has managed to dodge for the last 20 years.
But last week all that changed again. The European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso declared that not only would Scotland have to re-apply for membership of the EU but that a newly independent Scotland would be treated as a ‘third country’ – not a member state and not a member of the EU.
As a result, all existing agreements that the UK has secured – including an opt-out from the euro – would not apply to Scotland. This changed the debate in Scotland considerably and while it is true that no-one knows what form an independent Scotland’s EU membership would look like, nor whether it would be forced to take the euro or how long it would have to remain outside the EU – there is now enough uncertainty to do serious damage to the SNP’s case.
It may well be that Salmond is right, that Scotland will have an easy job of negotiation EU membership, that Scotland will not be forced to take the euro and that the negotiations will be over long before Independence Day, allowing as near to a seamless transition as possible.
But it is also possible that Scotland’s path to EU membership will be long and bumpy, that other member states might object to Scotland getting any opt outs – even from the euro – and that Scotland might end up with a very bad deal indeed, as well as having to spend some time stranded outside its most important market.
The reality is that no-one will really know what’s going to happen until and if Scots vote for independence in 2014 and negotiations begin.
And it is that very uncertainty which is causing Salmond so many problems. The First Minister knows he needs the trust of Scots if he is to win in 2014, he also needs certainty.
And, at the moment, because of this still ongoing controversy over Europe, he has neither.