Subtle it wasn’t. At the Scottish National Party’s conference in Aberdeen in October, the yellow stars of the European Union were projected onto a giant backdrop of the party’s initials, flanked by two Scottish flags.
The party’s in-your-face Europhilia is not just a signal to Scottish voters — who voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU — that membership of the bloc is part of its vision of an independent Scotland. SNP leaders have been aggressively courting their counterparts across Europe, laying the groundwork for the next time the nation holds an independence referendum.
Their goal: to convince EU leaders to lend their support, or at least withhold opposition, to such a referendum — and to smooth the way for Scotland to quickly become an EU member should voters decide to break with the U.K.
“What we’ve seen since the referendum on leaving the EU is an intensification of a particular type of ‘para-diplomatic’ effort,” Emily St. Denny, a politics lecturer at Scotland’s Stirling University. The Scottish effort is “specifically designed to bolster sympathy for and recognition of Scotland as a natural member of the European community.”
In September, Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon traveled to Potsdam to collect an award for her “passionate” advocacy for Europe and an “ethical stance against Brexit.”
At the gala, organized by leading figures in German media and politics, the SNP leader met with Germany’s Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth, who was publicly encouraging. “We welcome your pro-European stance and attachment to the EU,” Roth wrote companionably, in a tweet accompanied by stagey photos of the meeting.
Sturgeon has also met with the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and with Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit point man.
In addition to Sturgeon, a range of other Scottish government ministers, including Scotland’s Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop and Constitutional Relations Secretary Mike Russell, have logged at least 80 trips to European countries since January 2018. That averages to one Scottish diplomatic jaunt per week for two years.
These jaunts included meetings with former French Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau and German Federal Foreign Office Minister of State, Niels Annen, among others.
Back home, the SNP has focused its recent agenda on political issues that resonate in Europe. Since the Brexit vote in 2016, it has repeatedly pledged to safeguard the rights of the 220,000 EU nationals currently resident in Scotland, and has promoted itself as a “world leader” on climate change.
The SNP was on the losing side of the last two British referendums: the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and the 2016 Brexit vote, in which Scotland voted heavily to Remain even as the U.K. as a whole decided to Leave.
Scottish nationalists argue that the U.K.’s decision to exit the EU has changed the political landscape so fundamentally that Scotland should vote again on independence. Polls put Scottish voters evenly split on the issue, with each camp on about 44 percent. But with the remaining 12 percent undecided, the balance could quickly change depending on the course of Brexit.
Meanwhile, the SNP claims its years-long program of soft diplomacy is finally gaining traction, lifting prospects for Scottish independence within Europe.
“During the first independence referendum in 2014, there was a chill,” said Alyn Smith, a member of the European Parliament from the SNP. During the run-up to the last vote, Britain’s then-Prime Minister David Cameron was able to convince other European leaders to pour cold water on the idea of a smooth journey to Scottish independence and EU membership.
Next time, Smith argued, things could play out very differently. “From an EU perspective, a number of people who didn’t quite get the need for independence in 2014 get it now,” he said.
There are signs they might be right. In September, Herman Van Rompuy, former president of the European Council, told the BBC that there had been a “change” in the way the EU viewed Scotland since 2016. There was “much more sympathy” for regions in Scotland’s position of wanting to belong to the EU, he said.
‘Act like a state’
In addition to working the Continent’s canapé circuit, the SNP-led government has invested in a promotional effort it grandly terms “Innovation and Investment Hubs.” No one calls the new offices embassies or trade missions, because Scotland, which isn’t an independent country, can’t have embassies and trade missions. But that’s basically what they are.
Tasked with “promoting Scotland’s research, innovation, industrial, social and cultural strengths” the first hub opened in Dublin in 2016, followed soon after by Brussels, Berlin, London, and Paris, where Scottish officials focus on “building diplomatic relations,” according to the program’s website.
The SNP is trying to work around the limits of the U.K.’s constitutional setup, which places control of foreign affairs under the U.K. government, said St. Denny. “The Scottish government does not, in an official sense, have a foreign policy,” she said. “So, what it’s aiming to do is circumvent that by fostering links with international actors.”
The recent uptick in Scottish diplomacy is the latest chapter in an effort underway since 2007, when the SNP first won control of Scotland’s parliament.
Soon after taking power, the Scottish nationalists embarked on a series of fact-finding trips to Nordic capitals — Oslo, Copenhagen, and Reykjavík — where they discussed security and defense concerns with their counterparts.
The goal was to reassure Scotland’s immediate European neighbors that an independent Scottish state would play a “full part” in meeting Europe’s defense and intelligence-sharing needs, particularly in areas of strategic importance, like the Arctic North.
“Think like a state, act like a state,” became an SNP slogan. The idea would go on to frame today’s push for EU legitimacy.
Angus Robertson, the SNP’s Europe and Defense spokesperson from 2001 to 2015 and Westminster leader from 2007 to 2017, is credited with convincing the party to focus on lobbying Europe. Half-German, a regular commentator on German and Austrian television, Robertson said building ties with core European actors has been “more intense” and seen a “definite quickening of pace,” lately, despite being “a top priority for the SNP for decades.”
The campaign includes SNP officials in “the Scottish Parliament, Westminster Parliament, European Parliament, and European Committee of the Regions,” he said. “There has been a concerted effort to communicate our desire that Scotland will be an EU member state and help prepare the ground for that outcome.”
Homage to Catalonia
The “concerted effort” hasn’t gone unnoticed by the SNP’s opponents, who argue the party is using taxpayers’ cash to promote its own political goals.
“The First Minister has a role to play in promoting Scotland abroad, but she should be focusing on Scotland’s interests, not those of the SNP,” said Wendy Chamberlain, a spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who oppose a second referendum.
“At the same time Nicola Sturgeon is decrying the chaos of Brexit, she is trying to build fresh walls between Scotland and the rest of the U.K.,” she added.
In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative administration has fired warning shots at Scotland’s European operation. In August, U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay reportedly blocked Scottish civil servants from attending a round of meetings in Brussels. The meetings, on issues including fishing and agriculture, are part of the Scottish Parliament’s remit.
Hyslop, the SNP Cabinet minister, said Scottish officials hadn’t been advised in advance, and complained to Barclay.
The chances of the SNP getting another independence vote in 2020 depend greatly on the next British general election.
The Tories have been clear that they won’t grant a so-called “Section 30” order — the legislative mechanism Sturgeon needs to stage another legally valid referendum on independence — to the Edinburgh parliament.
That leaves Scottish separatists needing a surge by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, in the hope they can exchange their support for a would-be Labour government for a green light on a referendum.
Without that, nationalists will find it difficult to marshal European support for Scottish accession to the EU. Calling a non-binding vote would almost certainly damage the SNP’s European credibility, and likely fail, resulting in a Catalan-style standoff with Westminster.
“The line that we seem to be getting from European leaders is that, if Scotland becomes independent, as long as the process is legal, then it would be considered for membership on the same criterion as any other country,” Emily St. Denny said.
“But until then there will be no particular support for Scotland in its bid for secession,” she added. “A lot hinges on the legality of the next referendum.”
Read the original story at politico.eu.