LONDON — The nightmare scenario — according to the naysayers — is that if the Scots decide to vote yes to independence on Thursday, it would mean not just the end of the United Kingdom, but also the European Union.
How could it not, they ask? If Scotland goes, surely it will give a boost to secessionist movements across Europe, like the Catalans in Spain? And if we start breaking up the continent into ever-smaller parts, where will it all end? Disaster, that's where, say the unionists, who want to see the various parts of the U.K. held together with sticking plaster forever.
Nightmares aside, if Scotland were to break away from the U.K. it will make no real difference to the EU, and none at all to the wider world. We like to see every crisis we live through as the biggest threat to democracy since the last one. Remember the last one? It only just happened. The war in Ukraine presented a very real, physical threat, not far from the borders of the EU. We haven't yet seen where that crisis will end, but surely it has shown there are some pan-European values worth defending? And before that there was the collapse of the Greek economy and the euro crisis, which were also predicted to bring down the EU.
And let's not forget the wars in the Balkans in the '90s, which demonstrated the weakness of European unity and its capacity to act. Further back, there was the oil crisis of the '70s, which wrought havoc across the continent's economies.
Yet here we find the EU, still trundling on.
The demise of the EU has been predicted so many times it's almost impossible to count. That is not to make the case for the EU, simply to say that it has already weathered a few storms, and will weather a few more. Some critics argue that it is not entirely clear what the EU means: what does it stand for, what even is it? But that might just be its strength, giving it a flexibility to survive these crises, whether you like it or not.
All of this may well be a moot point. The yes campaign, led by Rupert Murdoch's favorite politician, Alex Salmond, has gained lots of traction in recent days in what has turned out to be a strikingly vigorous debate. But there are still sufficient undecided voters to swing it toward maintaining the current order of things. If you don't know what you want by now, you're unlikely to suddenly decide radical change is the answer. Today, one betting company even began paying out to those who put their money on a no vote, two days before polls open. And betting companies tend to know where the good money lies.
But even if the Scots do vote to break away, it doesn't follow that the same would happen in Catalonia. Precedent might make it easier for secessionists across Europe to pressure their respective governments into giving them a referendum, but Catalans are no more likely to vote yes just because the Scots did. They might get a referendum but they would vote for or against independence on its particular merits, economic, political, and social — for the Catalans.
If it should turn out that an independent Scotland thrives over the next 10 years, it might then become a proper incentive to other aspirational separatists. But of course it works the other way: If a separated Scotland falters, the naysayers will have been proved right, and calls for secession across the continent would surely be dampened.
In the still unlikely scenario that the Scots do decide to break away, it will be a quite extraordinary moment: a country gaining independence without a shot fired — and just a few raised voices — would be something to cherish, whether or not you agree with the decision. A triumph for democracy, for Britain — and even to an extent, the EU. As for the question of its exit and/or readmission to the union, the continent's numerous pen-pushers will rapidly pick up that baton. Paperwork will start to be processed, and in no time at all, Scotland's place in Europe will be restored.
It's exciting to predict the end of the world. But no one's called it right so far.