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SNP arguments against the Union also apply to the EU

The city of Strasbourg epitomizes mixed identities:

French and German, Protestant and Catholic, once its own independent republic but now part of France.

It also enjoys status as the formal seat of the European Parliament. Or rather one of two seats, for a travelling political circus of MEPs, Eurocrats and journalists still spends a week of each month on the Franco-German border rather than in Brussels.

Having spent part of last week speaking to officials and elected representatives there, it's easy to feel a little detached. It often feels like a faraway parliament of which most Scots know very little.

Partly this is the semi-detached nature of the UK's membership, a sense (and not just a Tory one) that Britain ought to be in Europe but not run by Europe, but also press coverage. As Simon Hix of the London School of Economics points out, our media only started paying attention to who might become the next Commission president after the recent elections.

Thus the notion Jean-Claude Juncker was somehow popularly "elected" - particularly in Scotland - holds little water. As one of the SNP's two MEPs told me last week, that plays to the idea of a "Europe-wide demos that simply doesn't exist".

Yet at the same time the Scottish Government hailed Mr Juncker as a man with whom they could do business, not only because the former prime minister of Luxembourg is - as Alex Salmond put it - the "living manifestation" of the influence small states can have in the EU, but (more to the point) it was another stick with which to beat David Cameron.

External Affairs Minister Humza Yousaf was first to wield it, observing Mr Juncker's election showed "how isolated the UK has become in Europe", undermined Mr Cameron's proposed renegotiation of UK membership terms and risked "putting the UK on the fast-track out of Europe", something only a Yes vote could prevent.

The SNP is also happy with Mr Juncker's position on Scottish independence, or rather the fact he doesn't have a position at all, having simply observed the EU should keep out of the debate.

He was, of course, playing it safe (unlike his more interventionist predecessor), but this lauding of the new Commission chief exposes some of the contradictions in the Nationalist world view, chiefly that the UK is some sort of ramshackle failed state but the EU is a paragon of constitutional virtue.

Mr Juncker has been much caricatured in the UK press as an "arch-federalist", and while that could mean anything the point remains that he generally believes in the Eurozone, closer fiscal integration and (ultimately) a federal Europe. The SNP, of course, don't want any of those things, and neither does the UK Government.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are now committed to negotiating an opt-out from "ever closer union", although it's not entirely clear what they mean by that. Yet if you push Nationalists on this point what emerges is a difference of style rather than substance. Recently I heard Nicola Sturgeon admit she wasn't "a huge enthusiast for ever more integration" in the EU, and indeed one SNP MEP I spoke to said the UK's stance often "undermines decent arguments".

The SNP's wider point, of course, is that only once Scotland has its own seat at the top table can it have any hope of influencing the EU's future direction, although it isn't altogether clear this would involve anything tangibly different from the rUK approach. In other words, a Yes vote will simply facilitate a distinctly Scottish Euroscepticism, no doubt cloaked in Europhile language.

I can't help feeling ever-shifting geopolitical terrain has ended up pushing the SNP into a rather odd position vis-a-vis the EU. Back in 1988 when the party swallowed its pride and advocated "independence in Europe", the Union was a very different beast, more a looser association of sovereign states, so the pitch - although it sounded oxymoronic - just about worked.

Post-Maastricht, however, that song ended but the SNP's Europhile melody lingered on, seemingly impervious to ever-closer union, tighter fiscal integration, the Eurozone crisis and a lot of other hugely inconvenient events. It's also become painfully obvious a lot of the arguments the SNP wields against the UK also apply to the EU - usually in spades.

So the UK is undemocratic because it has an appointed Upper House and hereditary monarch? Okay, so where does that leave the EU with its unelected executive body, indirectly elected Council and relatively weak Parliament? And if Scotland sometimes doesn't get the UK governments it votes for, how often is the same true of its European administration?

Answer: not very often. The SNP also complains the "Westminster system" increasingly dances to a Ukip tune (which it does), but then the Brussels/Strasbourg parliament is increasingly dominated by fringe parties of the extreme left and right, and even with independence Scotland would only have about a dozen MEPs.

Could a Scot become President of the European Commission or Council? Of course they could, but the odds are far slimmer than one becoming Prime Minister or Chancellor of the UK. Most puzzling, however, is the SNP's view of sovereignty - in a UK context they're hypersensitive yet at the EU level intensely relaxed.

It clings to outdated concepts of Westminster sovereignty while attacking the Conservatives and Ukip for wanting greater autonomy from Brussels - it's all very confusing. As Sir Malcolm Rifkind recently observed: "Why is sharing a parliament and sovereignty with the Portuguese, Greeks and Hungarians desirable and acceptable but sharing the House of Commons with the English and Welsh anathema?"

In Strasbourg I also detected genuine fear from some MEPs of almost unstoppable momentum towards a British exit, although on a number of levels I think this is misplaced. Firstly, both Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband will campaign for continued membership in a referendum that now looks certain to be held at some point in the next Westminster Parliament.

Opinion polls also show a dramatic shift in the past two years, with about 60 per cent of Brits saying they would be prepared to stay in on the basis of "renegotiated" terms. Furthermore, the better Farage et al do then the more moderate opinion is pushed in this direction. None of this, in short, adds up to British "independence" any time soon.

There's even a growing split between the more romantic, Eurosceptic Tories and realists who see the reality of what's at stake. Even a recent Foreign Affairs Committee urged the UK Government to accept a "democratic deficit" but nevertheless "remain inside the EU". But Europhiles - as with Unionists - have to make the case.

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