Margo MacDonald: Europe row is a game changer

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David Cameron, the posh boy who begins to look like the European people’s champion, and Alex Salmond, who risks losing the unassailable leadership of Scotland, are now taking the decisions that will shape history’s assessment of them as politicians whose judgment affected the quality of life of future generations.

Cameron may like, even love, the European Union, but his first loyalty is to his party, a natural extension of aspiring to serving queen and country. The phrase tripped off the lips of the Prime Minister’s set at Eton and Oxford without embarrassment. In First Minister Salmond’s world, the phrase was used sometimes sardonically, sometimes bitterly, but at all times with a deliberate interpretation of the clichéd words.

Yet the ideology summed up in that phrase is one of the motivators in the great debate that threatens to overwhelm the process of deciding the future relationship between Scotland and the other parts of the UK. Until now, Salmond and Cameron have led their parties to electoral success, albeit in the case of the latter because they entered into coalition with partners whose views are opposed to theirs on the desired relationship between the EU and its member states.

The Grande Project that inspired and motivated the original Franco-German and later Benelux post-war reconstructionist politicians was well understood and approved of by Winston Churchill. His ambivalence on Britain’s role in the project was overtaken by his successors, who opted the UK out of developments that would have diluted the UK’s primary loyalty to monarch and country.

Now millions of people in southern Europe lack the means of feeding themselves. Greece and Portugal are reverting to three-and-a-half world status in the wake of their banking systems’ collapse. As the First Minister might put it, “facts are chiels that winna ding”, or as a Tory election poster proclaimed during the 1979 revolution that saw Margaret Thatcher sweep to power, handbag at the ready, “The EU isn’t working”.

However, during the middle years of last century, because of a booming American economy, economic growth across Europe was the order of the day and only a few party-poopers pointed at the huge borrowing by America and EU states that financed all that EU growth. The blip of an economic turndown passed without too much harm done to the UK economy, and as countries and families flourished, politicians who continued to distrust the very basis of what looked like unassailable success in the EU were marginalised as Eurosceptics.

But that has been changing. UKIP’s Nigel Farage may be the most visible representative of the change in the balance of opinion on the EU, but it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the strength of belief in a Europe of the nations represented by this engaging, some say outrageous man. The change in the balance of economic power in the global economy has changed some economic and trade patterns that, while the good times were rolling, looked as solid as the Bank of England. Oops.

For example, the German government sees more advantages in building common interest with the UK based on its resource-based potential for development rather than the potential offered by a closer trade association with Romania, Bulgaria and the other Balkan states. And in this, the German chancellor is edging closer to her electorate. Germans are about as keen on a centralised, federal EU as the Scots, but there’s been no way to express this. The German constitution doesn’t do referendums.

But Germans know that the euro in their pocket is likely to have much lower purchasing power should an EU fiscal union come to pass. Recently, Germans like economist Otmar Issing have reminded their elected representatives who refuse to let the people’s voice be heard that the English Civil War was fought over the principle of no taxation without representation.

But Chancellor Angela Merkel, who cannot be dismissed as either pro-federal or pro-Europe of the nations, could find the pressure for an “in-or-out” referendum growing if Cameron has to commit to holding a UK referendum because he is dependent on the votes of a growing number of EU critics among the Tories.

Where will all this leave Scotland, and the referendum to decide our future? There will still be a separate case for Scotland to be argued, but will it be heard above the Westminster-based debate? And what would the Scottish Government recommend to voters, remembering that Germans and others want no federal union, even though the chairman of the Yes campaign says he does. Better quality thinking, analysis and narrative is needed urgently.