October 30, 2012

DOES IT make sense for Scotland to become an independent nation, ending 300 years of union with England and Wales? And would it make any difference to Americans?

The answer to the second question is an unfortunate yes: An independent Scotland would significantly weaken the foremost military and diplomatic ally of the United States, while creating another European mini-state unable to contribute meaningfully to global security. Scottish leader Alex Salmond, who on Oct. 15 sealed an agreement with British Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a referendum on Scottish independence by the end of 2014, says his would-be country would withdraw from NATO, expel British nuclear submarines from its waters and keep an army of 8,000-10,000 soldiers. Though the population of Scotland, at 5.2 million, is less than 10 percent of that of the United Kingdom, some speculate that what remained of Britain could lose its seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Whether Scotland would benefit from separation is a closer call; but for now, polls show that most Scots don’t think so. Mr. Salmond’s cheerful assurances that Scotland could quickly join the European Union while retaining the British pound as its currency remain to be tested; London would have a veto over both. EU states might demand that Scotland commit to the wobbly Euro; if the pound were split between two nations, it could become subject to the same troubles that have afflicted the European currency.

Scotland’s viability as an independent state would depend on its ability to monopolize revenues from Britain’s North Sea oil fields; the left-leaning Scottish National Party envisions a social democratic welfare state, like Norway. But its claims that 90 percent of North Sea oil and gas would belong to the country would also be contested. Some say England would retain up to a third of the fields.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who strongly opposes the split, may have managed to undermine the movement when he refused to allow a second referendum question on greater Scottish autonomy within Britain — the option that most of the population seems to favor. But Scottish separatism is not yet dead — Mr. Salmond is a formidable campaigner — and it is part of a worrying trend. Across Europe, prosperous regions with distinct ethnic, linguistic or historic identities are contemplating independence, from Catalonia in Spain to Flanders in Belgium and Venice in Italy.

What makes such fragmentation conceivable, ironically, is the European Union, which offers Scots, Catalans and others the prospect of remaining part of a big common market while keeping more of their wealth for themselves. Like small U.S. states, European statelets could command disproportionate representation in EU bodies; today’s provincial politicians imagine themselves seated alongside Germany and France at European summits.

To be sure, a more local government can be more efficient, more democratic and more attuned to citizens’ interests. But the more fragmented Europe becomes, the less it will be able to use its collective strength on the global stage, both in military and diplomatic terms. Though a weak EU diplomatic corps exists, a bona fide continental military is a distant dream, at best. A weaker Europe means a less stable world, and less leverage for the democracies.