The European debate begins but what about a debate about Britain?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday Mail, February 21st 2016

After months of rumours the official countdown to the European referendum on June 23rd begins.

This is David Cameron’s triumph, the high point of his Premiership, and the beginning of the end for him. Whatever the merits of his ‘deal’, power now and particularly after the vote, irrespective of the result, flows away from him.

It is a huge moment for Britain. Its ‘special status’ in Europe has been formally recognised – making explicit something obvious from the moment the UK joined the Common Market in 1973.

The rhetoric of In and Out will be over the top. Despite this the choices will not be clear-cut. The difference between the UK remaining and leaving is much less than both sides claim.

If the UK votes to stay it will remain a semi-detached part of the EU – defined by its opt-outs from the Euro and the Schengen ‘open borders’ agreement. If the UK decides to leave it would still have an intimate relationship with the EU – with the main change Outers argue being the UK foregoing its formal voice in EU institutions: the Council of Ministers, Commission and Parliament.

The debate is going to carry memories of the indyref but without the same democratic spirit. It will have some of the same clichéd rhetoric: ‘Best of both worlds’, ‘better together’ and the dangers of ‘breaking away’.

It will be unbalanced between the two camps. The ‘In’ side represents nearly the entire British establishment, the leaders of all the Westminster parties and big business.

The ‘Out’ side has three national campaigns vying to be the official one, and is leaderless apart from the divisive figure of UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Tory minister Michael Gove is for ‘Out’, but both sides of the Tory argument are waiting nervously for Boris Johnson to jump one way or the other.

The big difference between the two votes is between the EU and UK. The EU has contributed much to European prosperity and development. But it has done so at the cost of becoming an increasingly anti-democratic, elitist club at odds with many of its citizens.

There is very little love for the EU in the UK. And for a union that is meant to be flexible it has shown itself with feet of clay in the negotiations with Cameron. That’s the reality of a union of 28 countries.

The UK is a very different proposition and one which some people can feel quite emotional about. For all its economic problems and democratic drawbacks, its constitutional flexibility has adapted to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish home rule aspirations.

One key question of the referendum will be: what is the best way to shake things up and annoy the establishment and political class? What is the best change option? Will it be by endorsing Cameron’s deal, or will it by embracing the ‘Out’ side dominated by UKIP. Neither of these looks very attractive.

This is a contest between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ Britain: between a cosy, metropolitan dominated account of the economy and society, and one which worries at the cost of greater integration, immigration and social change.

The UK establishment will say it is all about economic security, national security and stability in a world of flux and change. Yet, when they say EU membership is about economic prosperity, most voters will reflect that the economy doesn’t really work that well for them, and hasn’t for decades.

The choice like Scotland’s big debate will be one of two rather similar futures. Then for all the heated talk, the final choice came down to two versions of greater self-government: one a conditional version of independence, and the other, greater powers in an evolving union, neither straightforward (think of the current Scottish and UK Government haggling on this).

Whatever the result this is about a UK which will sit semi-detached from the historic European project of closer union, but seeing its future as connected to the continent, while gazing across the Atlantic, and clinging on to the illusion it can ‘punch above our weight’ in the international corridors of power.

The consequences for Scotland of this narrow debate are nearly as important as if we voted to remain, but the UK voted to come out, which would entail one almighty constitutional crisis. Scotland has become a more mainstream European country than England, while Europe itself is in a mess.

The big dilemma is that the UK has never really seen itself a fully-fledged European country, while Scotland increasingly does. That’s not a simple divide, for it comes at a time of European crisis and uncertainty. But whatever way the vote falls, this faultline will continue and define politics across these isles and where Scotland sees its future.