Britain’s international allies expressed undisguised satisfaction and relief on Friday at Scotland’s rejection of independence after a referendum campaign that raised fears of the destabilising consequences for the world of a UK break-up.
Leaders of Nato, the US, the EU and individual European nations with a strong stake in the UK’s survival, such as Ireland and Spain, welcomed the clear-cut 55.3 to 44.7 per cent result. They said they expected it to be good for Scotland, the UK and Europe in general.
Scotland’s referendum attracted worldwide attention, particularly in the campaign’s final stages when, to the astonishment of many outsiders, it seemed possible that a peaceful, prosperous democracy with 307 years of history as a united state was about to break itself up. Bohuslav Sobotka, prime minister of the Czech Republic, said he was pleased with the Scottish result because “I take it as yet another proof that the world has not gone entirely mad”.
US President Barack Obama issued a statement saying the US welcomed the result of the referendum and congratulated the Scots “for their full and energetic exercise of democracy”.
He added: “Through debate, discussion, and passionate yet peaceful deliberations, they reminded the world of Scotland’s enormous contributions to the UK and the world, and have spoken in favor of keeping Scotland within the United Kingdom. We have no closer ally than the United Kingdom, and we look forward to continuing our strong and special relationship with all the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as we address the challenges facing the world today.”
Karel De Gucht, the EU’s trade commissioner, told Belgian radio: “It would have been cataclysmic for Europe. If [independence] had happened in Scotland, I think it would have been a political landslide on the scale of the Soviet Union’s break-up.”
However, the reaction in Moscow was less favourable. Mikhail Yemelyanov, deputy leader of president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, condemned Scotland’s referendum as less legitimate than a March 16 plebiscite in Crimea, which was held after Russia’s military intervention in the Ukrainian peninsula and produced a 97 per cent majority in support of absorption into Russia.
There was no immediate comment from Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, but Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her foreign minister, said: “I believe that this is a good decision for Scotland, the UK and Europe. We hope that the United Kingdom remains a powerful and committed partner in Europe.”
Speaking more bluntly, Anton Börner, president of Germany’s wholesale and foreign trade association, said: “Just as it was a stupid idea that Scotland should leave the UK, so it is a stupid idea that Britain should leave Europe. It would be disastrous for Germany to lose a great advocate for freedom and free market principles in the EU.”
José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, and other EU leaders politely reminded David Cameron, the UK prime minister who is struggling to control a sizeable eurosceptic faction in his Conservative party, that he would do well to respect Scottish public opinion, widely regarded as more pro-EU than English opinion. “The Scottish government and the Scottish people have repeatedly reaffirmed their European commitment,” Mr Barroso said.
EU leaders were also worried that, if Scotland became independent, the rump UK would be dominated by anti-EU English opinion to such an extent that any future referendum on EU membership might result in the UK’s exit – an outcome no EU government wants.
EU leaders were afraid that a Scottish vote for secession would have encouraged separatism in regions such as Catalonia in Spain and Flanders in Belgium. In an unmistakable allusion to Catalonia, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy congratulated Scots on voting to stay in the UK and observed that the referendum campaign had been conducted “with scrupulous respect for the law of the country”.
Mr Rajoy’s government opposes a Catalan nationalist plan to hold a referendum on secession in November on the grounds that it would violate Spain’s constitution.
In this way the question of Scottish independence was seen in Europe as an issue that went to the heart of the EU’s reputation on the world stage.
The Irish government gave a particularly warm welcome to the pro-UK outcome. “The strong bonds and historic links between us all run deep and are well-known,” said Charles Flanagan, Ireland’s foreign affairs and trade minister.
Before the vote, Ireland’s leaders were concerned that Scottish independence would destabilise the 1998 Good Friday peace settlement in Northern Ireland and revive nationalist demands for a united Ireland, thereby conjuring the spectre of a return to the sectarian violence of the Troubles from the late 1960s on.