Referendum double standards

Scotland and the EU
Defining electoral franchises is always contentious. Under ‘universal suffrage’, universality does not mean that literally everyone has the right to vote, but simply every registered adult citizen. In national referenda, there is the additional question of identity. ‘Who is Scottish?’ (for the purpose of the consultation) was asked in September 2014. ‘Who is British?’ will be asked in the ‘in-out’ referendum on the EU, sometime by late 2017.

In the first, the franchise was broadly defined, including non-British EU citizens resident in Scotland, as well as Irish and Commonwealth ones. In the second, the franchise will be narrower. Apart from the Irish and Commonwealth citizens, UK residents who are not UK nationals will not have a vote. Since effectively the same Conservative-led government legislated for both referenda from the UK side, this is surely a case of political double standards.

Here we might ask what precisely the EU is. What do potential ‘no’ voters in the EU referendum want to be ‘out’ of – or in what kind of polity do potential ‘yes’ voters want to remain? Is the EU a convention of democracies, or a potential United States of Europe?

In the Scottish referendum, the definition meant voters could conceive their identity broadly, and in this respect the EU received the benefit of the doubt – which was right in a sense because the referendum prefigured Scotland as a new state in the world, as the EU itself might one day become.

But it was also wrong, in a deeper historical sense. In particular, how could other Europeans with their own history and culture, temporarily resident in Scotland for work or study, help to define Scottish national identity? How could they, probably uncommitted to a lifetime in Scotland, decide the future lives of Scots? Independence is forever, not till next year or the next recession.

Casting the Scottish franchise broadly in 2014 was also controversial in a legal sense. On the one hand, as pointed out by the international lawyer, David Edward, there is now an EU citizenship which potentially supersedes citizenship rights assured under member states. Since the Treaty of Union of 1993, it has been illegal to discriminate against citizens in the EU on grounds of their (member state) nationality, especially in matters of fundamental human rights. But in what sense was it a matter of fundamental human rights for Poles or Romanians (or for that matter Nigerians and Canadians) to be able to decide whether Scots should be part of the United Kingdom state in future? This is an even more specific issue, and more directly concerned with identity than whether Poles and Romanians in Scotland should have a say on whether the UK should continue as part of the EU.

One way to make sense of common EU citizenship is to consider whether rights enjoyed in one country are concretely reciprocated in another, through established law. So in the test-case cited by David Edward, a French university student living in Belgium claimed a right to subsistence in the shape of state benefits. The student had fallen on hard financial times and was no longer able to support himself and complete his degree. The Belgian authorities rejected his claim. But the European Court of Justice, defining him as a worker exercising his right of free movement within the EU, adjudged that this was wrong, and ordered the Belgian government to pay the benefits – decreeing that, in effect, reciprocity should prevail in this matter between French and Belgian society.

By analogy there should, in 2014, have been reciprocity between EU societies on their willingness to allow some of their number to secede democratically and form separate member states – as had been agreed in principle between the UK and Scottish governments in the Edinburgh Agreement.

But in the rest of the EU this possibility was barely explored. The President of the European Commission, along with other European leaders, expressed outright hostility to the idea, and in at least one member state it was outlawed in advance. In Spain, the Rajoy government not only refused to consider referenda on Basque or Catalan secession but went to the Spanish Supreme Court to procure a ban. Those Spanish politicians also – the circumstances were not coincidental – stated their intention to veto any independent Scottish application to join the European Union.

The upshot of this was that no Scot living in Bilbao or Barcelona in 2014 would have been able to vote on Basque or Catalan independence, while Spanish citizens resident in Scotland could vote in the independence referendum. In a case known to me, a Spaniard voted ‘no’ to independence out of her objection to the secession movements in Spain!

Some would argue the same potential for injustice existed in Scotland in 2014 with regard to another set of voters. Thus, 72% of ‘British born in the rest of the UK’, amounting to some 6% of the electorate, voted ‘no’ in the independence referendum, effectively swinging the result, since the difference between the two sides was 10%. Meanwhile, according to the same analysis, 53% of Scots ‘born in Scotland’ voted ‘yes’.

These considerations, and that expatriate Scots were denied a vote altogether in 2014 (while most expatriate Britons will be eligible to vote in the EU referendum) should give us all pause for thought.

The first referendum result was a guddle; the second could be the same. Not an unsatisfactory outcome for English Conservatives, or European financiers who are happy to lend Greeks the money to pay Greek debts to the IMF.

In my view, Scottish independence is the bottom rung of the ladder to political reform at home and to the redefinition of political Europe, and beyond them, to the transformation of international relations. Without independence, we are not even on the ladder.

Peter Lomas is a contributor to Common Weal