With elections for the European Parliament rapidly approaching, the European Movement took some time to host a question time about the upcoming independence referendum and specifically Scotland’s relationship with the European Union.
Panelists included Dr Constantia Anastasiadou, an EU tourism expert from Napier University; Maggie Chapman, the Green councillor for Leith Walk; Radim Dragomaca, a St Andrews doctoral researcher in IR and international law and editor-in chief of the Foreign Affairs Review; Iain Macwhirter, a political commentator for the Herald and the Sunday Herald; and Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. The event was professionally chaired by Professor John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde.
The majority of questions came from audience members who had sent them in via social networking and email before the event. This worked well to ensure there was a lively discussion, but it left limited opportunities for other audience members to have their say or ask questions on most issues. Nevertheless, a wide variety of issues were discussed, ranging from questions about European Parliament elections, freedom of movement, the legal hurdles of EU membership, currency, trade and the state of Scottish universities in an independent Scotland.
Discussion started off with the aim of answering one broad question: how do politicians get the UK as a whole to be interested in the European Parliament, and why should the average person care? Debate ranged from the disenchantment of most citizens about politics and the EU in particular, to how much of a say an independent Scotland would have in the European Parliament.
Willie Rennie noted that “mainstream people need to be convinced” about the value of voting in the European elections. Maggie Chapman argued that politicians “have a huge job to rebuild faith in politics”, after it had “failed to deliver” on many of the issues UK voters cared about.
During this general talk of complacency, it was difficult not to think of the many students around town I had talked to that have had ambivalent views on the September referendum in Scotland. Increasing voter turn out to the European elections will surely seem a difficult job if the youth of Scotland cannot currently engage in a debate about their country’s future. As Dr Constantia Anastasiadou quipped, political issues and politicians “do not come from outer space.”
Being hosted in a lecture theatre at the University of St Andrews, it would have been difficult to avoid the topic of how Scottish universities would look under an independent Scotland and in an integrated Europe.
On the crucial topic of university tuition fees under independence, Radim Dragomaca offered a quick and assured legal answer – that there is “no way legally that Scotland could deny RUK students the rights that they afford the rest of European students.” Chapman was quick to agree with the need for universal and affordable education, noting that it would be “inconceivable that [Scotland] continue to charge English students” if politicians truly believed in universal education. “Education is not something that has boundaries”, Chapman noted. “It is a good in and of itself.”
Overall, there were many thought provoking points raised about both the status of the UK and a potentially independent Scotland in Europe. Yet the grand picture to take out of the question time was one of uncertainty, even “insecurity” as Mr Rennie said. From almost all angles, excluding perhaps legal, no one seemed to have a definitive idea of what an independent Scotland would look like, or what its relationship with the EU would entail in terms of foreign policy. It is clear from the uncertainty coming from all the panelists that the real debate on independence needs to heat up.
Ultimately, it seems in the best interest of those who are voting in seven months’ time for the University to have more events like this that provoke stimulating discussion about Scottish independence.