A great deal of referendum campaign heat, if less light, has been generated over a future, independent Scotland's role in the EU.
Far less, if any, attention has been devoted to the equivalent considerations as they apply in respect of future membership of the similar sounding yet entirely distinct Council of Europe, which is in fact the more long-established and, in terms of membership, largest of all the post-Second World War political constructions.
The Council of Europe was delivered into being by the 1949 Treaty of London. The treaty established a parliamentary Assembly, its membership drawn on a politically representative basis from existing national parliaments, to give voice and vision to the determination never to see Europe plunged into warfare again and to maintain the highest standards of individual citizens' rights where the power of the state was concerned. It was and remains a seminal and singular political achievement.
For the past three years I have served, alongside Conservative and Labour politicians from the Commons and the Lords, on this Assembly. We enjoy but one absolute power, a significant one. The members of the parliamentary Assembly, largely free from the usual domestic party constraints, vote by secret ballot on the judicial membership of the European Court on Human Rights (ECHR).
The Council of Europe encompasses 47 independent countries representing 800 million people. The Assembly membership stands about 300 (the Russians are suspended). Its critics dismiss it as a talking shop (which it is) but, like the EU, it is never short of aspiring applicant states, the latest being Kosovo.
All have to meet human rights criteria and can be penalised if and when they fall short. The use of capital punishment, for example, automatically debars any country from entry. In truth, the Council is akin to Teddy Roosevelt's description of the American presidency: it is something of a bully pulpit, seeking to encourage and dissuade, praise and chastise, as appropriate.
Intriguingly, unlike the EU, no significant political force or grouping has ever subscribed to the policy of withdrawal from the Council. Even more fascinating, again unlike the EU, the Council has experience in and precedent of constituent member states dissolving into separate entities and then seeking to maintain or renew membership; all of which presents some pertinent political considerations in the case of an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK).
Regardless of the vagaries of First Minister Alex Salmond's legal guarantees about an independent Scotland and future EU membership, in more than 30 years of associations and dealings across European politics, I have never encountered a Continental volition to somehow "do Scotland down" in the event of independence. What is striking, however, and very much to the fore within the Council family, is the extent to which such a development is setting alarm bells ringing in other necks of the diplomatic woods.
Perhaps the two most pertinent comparators of more modern times flow from the precedents that arose when the-then Czechoslovakia, post the fall of the Berlin Wall, split into the constituent states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, peacefully if not entirely amicably. The Czech Republic assumed the inheritance of the pre-existing membership (the "continuator state") and Slovakia won admission as a new, independent country. A not dissimilar process applied in Serbia-Montenegro.
These parallels can be applied, broadly speaking, in the case of Scotland seceding from the Act of Union. The rUK, in terms of population and precedent, would assume the mantle of continuator state and the newly independent Scotland would become the applicant entity. Scotland, obviously, would want to join the Council of Europe and be expected to, though the best legal opinion is of the view that "the ECHR would probably continue to apply to Scotland uninterrupted without the need for Scotland to ratify it in its own right" (Professors James Crawford and Alan Boyle).
Where there is a political will there is usually a way, which is why contemporary Council of Europe experience reads reassuringly. But there is still the murkier world of politics and diplomacy to consider.
In asking around the chatty environs of the Council, I was taken aback to hear, from a highly authoritative source, the word "poisonous" to describe the ripple effect the Scottish dimension generates. Spain finds it has much more than Gibraltar to discuss with its British opposite numbers. The Kosovans are maintaining a very wary eye indeed. And, despite the welcome appearance of the newly-elected Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, let us not stray into the machinations that tragic set of circumstances is giving rise to.
These are febrile times for wider Europe and anything that adds to a climate of uncertainty is far from welcome for existing and established players; none of which should in itself dissuade us Scots from our democratic date with destiny on September 18. However, we need to be alert to the harsher political and diplomatic fallout that would ensue after a Yes vote.
Immense efforts have been going on for months to somehow square the circle between the entrenched positions of the European Court and the UK Government, backed overwhelmingly by the Commons, where the deeply vexed issue of prisoners' voting rights is concerned. I can but speculate; however, having sat in on meetings with both the Secretary General of the Council and the UK Attorney General, it is clear any way ahead remains fraught with difficulty.
I find it hard to believe, in the event of an independent Scotland seeking membership of the Council, that this body would absolve our Government of any continuing responsibility on the issue. This raises the question: what stance would Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill or Mr Salmond adopt on the issue post-independence as part of our determination to remain within the organisation? It is a legitimate question.
Scotland has upheld a sense and practice of internationalism beyond its size on the global stage. World history is punctuated by the extraordinary endeavours and impact of native born Scots down the generations. But I suspect that even the most diehard of Nationalists would have to concede that the MacAskills and Salmonds of this world have not exactly been at their most sure-footed where matters international have intruded upon the scene. Yet they will find themselves confronting a most demanding quagmire where this highly pertinent aspect of Council machinations is concerned.
None of this might sway a vote either way in September. But the responses in the interim will at least help shed light on how an independent Scotland might choose to conduct itself thereafter.
Charles Kennedy is Liberal Democrat MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber
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