Ian Swanson: EU membership row on wing and prayer

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SCOTLAND’S future in Europe has been one of the constantly recurring themes in the referendum debate.

At the start, it was all about whether opting for independence would jeopardise membership of the European Union. There were rows about legal advice which turned out not to exist and warnings about opposition from other countries, though all have carefully avoided any threats of a veto.

But now the argument has shifted. The increasing tensions between the UK Government and the EU have changed the backdrop to the debate.

And Scotland’s position in Europe now looks at least as uncertain as part of the UK as it would be as an independent country.

David Cameron’s promise of an in-out referendum on the UK’s continued EU membership may have started out as a way of appeasing troublesome backbenchers and fending off Ukip.

It must have seemed a good idea at the time: no matter how little might be gained from “renegotiation” of the UK’s relationship, the resulting package would be presented as a victory for the UK, all three main parties would campaign to stay in the EU and the voters would be sure to endorse that view.

But Ukip’s successes in English local government elections and the European Parliament elections began to undermine that plan and increased the prospect there could actually be a vote in favour of quitting Europe,

Then David Cameron’s failed attempt to block Jean-Claude Juncker’s appointment as new president of the European Commission left the UK looking isolated and facing an uphill task in any renegotiaion.

And now the Prime Minister’s reshuffle of his Cabinet has handed the Foreign Office to Philip Hammond, who is seen as one of the most Eurosceptic of Tory ministers.

Europe might not be the most popular of institutions. It is probably best known for its bureaucracy and its politicians’ extravagant expenses. But over the years Scotland has received substantial European funding as well as enjoying the trade benefits it brings.

Ukip managed to get an MEP elected from Scotland in the European Parliament elections in May – but the party’s support here is still nowhere near the level south of the Border.

And Scotland has traditionally been seen as less hostile to Europe than the rest of the UK, a perception borne out by a recent poll which found UK-wide support for staying in the EU was 39 per cent against 37 per cent wanting to leave, while in Scotland the figures were 51 per cent for staying in and 24 per cent for leaving.

Another poll found people were more inclined to vote Yes to an independent Scotland if they thought the UK was likely to leave the EU.

But the old argument has not gone away entirely. There was a flurry of controversy when Mr Juncker said this week he did not want to see any more expansion of the EU during his five years in office. He said there should be “a break from enlargement so that we can consolidate what has been achieved”.

The anti-independence parties immediately seized on the remarks and claimed they were a “hammer blow” to the Yes cause. But Mr Juncker’s office quickly issued a statement to make clear he was not talking about Scotland.

Europe is never a straightforward issue and, with two months to go, it seems neither side has an obvious advantage in pursuing it – but no doubt we have not heard the last of it.