European relations

Alex Salmond, of course, has his own agenda in challenging David Cameron over relations with the European Union.

Image copyright AFP

However, setting that aside for just a moment, the first minister is undoubtedly asking the right questions.

Mr Salmond is sharply critical of the prime minister's approach, arguing that Mr Cameron has chosen to "isolate the UK in Europe", generating a fundamental change in relations with the EU without consulting the devolved administrations.

In doing so, Mr Salmond sets out a series of questions which interrogate how the interests of Scotland and the wider UK are served by the new position.

He specifies sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and financial services.

It strikes me that this is a proper basis for an assessment of the prime minister's actions - and not other aspects of the debate thus far which has, in part, been founded upon a presumption that Mr Cameron's approach was either intrinsically right or intrinsically wrong.

Some strands of Euro-sceptic opinion might be inclined to categorise the PM's actions as praiseworthy mainly or purely because it involved a departure from the consensus among other EU nations.

But, equally, there has been a tendency in some other quarters to assert that the UK government's stance was intrinsically wrong because it removed Britain from the core of Europe, from the top table.

It does not seem to me logical that such an assertion can be made ipso facto, purely from first principles.

What would be the value, for example, in a state retaining consensus if every decision subsequently taken proved to be inimical to that state's interests?

What would be the value in a state remaining at the top table if it proved that the emerging rules were devised to ensure that that state's interests were to be subsumed?

I stress that these are hypothetical arguments, not a depiction of existing relations within the EU.

It is simply to note that the prime minister's actions should be judged against specific interest-based criteria, not against predetermined positions which assume that everything Brussels does is inherently wrong or that any challenge posed to other fellow members is inherently anti-communautaire and thereby mistaken.

Which is where Mr Salmond's questions come in.

Yes, he is challenging the fundamental nature of the PM's actions - or inactions.

But he does so by using measures which are founded upon precise and measurable interests.

That is where the debate now lies. In a calculation of interests, a summation, a judgement.

Did the potential impact of a financial transactions tax on the City of London outweigh the proclaimed benefits of being on the inside of future discussions concerning the Euro?

Or will Britain's interests face lasting real damage from sponsoring divisions in the Union?

Mr Salmond has two purposes in mind, one immediate and one strategic.

In immediate terms, he is adding his voice - and a distinct Scottish dimension - to the complaints over the PM's actions.

Longer term, Mr Salmond is attempting to turn the tables upon those critics, Conservative and otherwise, who seek to suggest that an independent Scotland would be in a weak position with regard to the EU.