European leaders worried about other would-be breakaway regions were able to breathe again Friday after Scottish voters’ resounding rejection of independence, but in the still-intact British Isles, the reaction was mixed – for many, relief at the outcome, for others, anger and dismay at what might come next.
British Prime Minister David Cameron had to deal with the tricky nature of fulfilling his promise that a “no” victory would lead to increased autonomy for Scotland while not setting off separatist-like rebellions among voters and members of Parliament in the other three nations that form the United Kingdom – England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“Now it is time for our United Kingdom to come together and to move forward,” he said. “A vital part of that will be a balanced settlement, fair to people in Scotland and importantly to everyone in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well.”
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, the driving force behind the failed independence vote, announced that he would step down from his leadership post in November, when elections are expected to bring in new members to the Scottish Parliament. Political commentators said the resounding rejection of independence – the “no” votes outpolled the “yes” ones by more than 10 percentage points – would remove the issue from Scotland’s agenda for at least a generation.
Meanwhile, across the English Channel, continental leaders were less ambiguous in their celebrations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that she had not interfered in the Scottish vote beforehand, so “now I will only say that I respect the result. But I say this with a smile on my face.”
Walter Frank Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, noted that the vote was good for the stability of “Scotland, the United Kingdom and Europe.”
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is faced with two regions that want to breakaway – Catalonia and the Basque country – sent out a video message praising the vote for taking place “en masse, peacefully and with scrupulous respect for the legality of its country.”
His government has refused to recognize a Catalonian call for its own independence referendum in November, which the Catalonian assembly approved Friday. He also appeared to issue a not-so-subtle warning to those wishing to break free from Spain when he added he was happy that Scotland had avoided “the serious economic, social, institutional and political consequences that its separation from the United Kingdom and Europe would have meant.”
Esteban Gonzalez Pons, of Spain’s center right Popular Party, was quoted by Spanish news sites as saying that the Scottish vote sent an important message: “This is the time for politics, dialogue and moderation, not for breakups and separations.”
French President Francois Hollande, whose nation has been facing an often bloody independence struggle in Corsica, on Thursday had warned that the Scottish vote risked “watering down the European project.”
“This opens the door for selfishness, populism and separatism,” he said.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was pleased with the way the vote went.
“This outcome is good for the united, open and stronger Europe that the European Commission stands for,” he said in his statement. “The European Commission welcomes the fact that during the debate over the past years, the Scottish government and the Scottish people have repeatedly reaffirmed their European commitment.”
But if a failed vote for independence was seen as good news by the leaders of Europe, the very fact that the vote took place was seen as encouraging by other dissatisfied regions across Europe.
Artur Mas, head of the Catalonian regional government in eastern Spain, said he took encouragement from the process.
“The Catalonian position was strengthened by the vote,” he said. “Because we see that a referendum was permitted in another EU country.”
Andoni Ortuzar, chairman of the Basque National Party, suggested that the Scottish rejection of independence would have no impact on Basque efforts for autonomy. “Whatever happens in Scotland is not connected to what is happening in the Basque country,” he said.
In Northern Italy, where there is a movement for the South Tyrol region to break away from Italy and join Austria, Phillip Achammer, chair of the South Tyrolean People’s Party, said the peaceful nature of the vote in Scotland had shown all Europeans that such referendums were a proper way forward.
“More than ever, the European Union should be prepared to have a sincere debate about a genuine Europe of regions,” he was quoted as saying.
Salmond’s resignation makes sense. Independence had been the single issue most defining his time in office. But he cannot complain that the vote was not a fair reflection of the views of Scots. A record-breaking 97 percent of those eligible to vote registered for the election, and a U.K. record-breaking 84 percent of those voted.
In the end, the 55-45 vote tally represented a clear victory for those choosing to remain within the United Kingdom. The “no” vote won in 28 of Scotland’s 32 districts, and while it carried the region’s largest city, Glasgow, political commentators noted that the turnout there had been a mere 75 percent, far less than the 80 or even 90 percent common elsewhere.
In all, “no” received 55.3 percent of the more than 3.6 million ballots cast.
According to one British survey, the strongest anti-independence vote came from the oldest voters, while independence found its strongest support among the youngest voters, 16- and 17-year-olds, who were enfranchised for this one time only.
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