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Europe hails Scottish vote as a victory for union more broadly

Scots voted definitely to stay in the UK. The European Union may need to take lessons from the Scottish independence referendum as it faces its own questions of legitimacy.

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    A newspaper advertising board displays a message for the Scottish independence referendum at a newsagents on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland on Friday. Scottish voters have rejected independence and decided that Scotland will remain part of the United Kingdom.
    Scott Heppell/AP
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The clear majority of Scots who voted to stay within the United Kingdom handed a resounding victory to integration that’s been hailed across Europe.

Many Scots ultimately decided that union was safer – whether it be with the UK or other organizations where an independent Scotland's membership might be in doubt, from the European Union to NATO.

But the outcome of the Scottish referendum also underlines the pressures facing union. As Britain now sets out to reform the balance of political power between Westminster and the entities that comprise the UK, it holds lessons for the EU as it faces its next test – whether the UK will stay in the bloc – and struggles to regain legitimacy amid a rise in Euroskepticism.

The “Better Together” win in Scotland is a victory for the message that “political union in the end is better for everyone involved,” says Jan Techau, the director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels. But that union requires a careful balance of power between the center and its members. “That lesson is something that the EU must embrace. It needs to get more legitimate at the top, and better at delegating powers at the lower level when that’s appropriate.”

Various secessionist movements across the Continent have looked to the Scottish experience as a rallying point, so the 55 percent of Scots who voted to stay with the UK brought relief in Europe. The mood was summed up in a tweet by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt this morning: “The United Kingdom stays united. So must Europe.”

The better-than-expected results for the union may have come down to new fiscal powers that British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged for Scotland in the days ahead of the race. And Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, in conceding defeat, promised that he will not back down from more devolution. “Scotland will expect these to be honored in rapid course,” he said.

That means that Mr. Cameron likely faces a bumpy political path as he strives to satisfy Scotland, his own party, and increasingly England, which itself wants a greater degree of autonomy. But if he’s able to drive through reforms at home, he can use those credentials as leverage to demand changes in EU governance. He has pledged to do that ahead of a 2017 referendum on the UK's EU membership that he says he’ll hold if he’s reelected next year.

A debate is already under way in the EU over whether the union needs “more Europe,” and where it might function better with “less,” says Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Center in Brussels.

Scotland's example could influence any number of issues facing the EU and member states, from the futility of forbidding such referendums to how much a grassroots campaign can galvanize the public, he says. Voter turnout across Scotland topped 85 percent.

One of the deepest lessons comes from the dynamic of the campaign, in which fear drove many voters to “No.” Many Scots stuck with the union not because they are satisfied, he says, but because they fear a change in the status quo – which means that the case for independence is not closed, especially if Cameron doesn't follow through with his pledges on devolution.

“I don’t think it is enough to simply argue that you should stay in the union because of fear of what it might mean to be outside it," says Mr. Zuleeg. "I think we need a much more positive proposition of what the union stands for, both within the UK but certainly also in the EU."

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