Scottish Independence and the EU

Scottish Independence and the EU

Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen

Since the 1980s, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has placed the issue of Scottish independence within a European context. Independence-in-Europe has been promoted as a way of keeping a wider economic and social union while securing sovereignty. The European question has now become a central issue in the referendum campaign, as people on the No side have consistently questioned whether Scotland could actually become a member state.

Initially, the nationalist position was that Scotland would simply remain in Europe, succeeding, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, to the present UK membership. Some nationalists have long argued that, if the Union is dissolved, two new states are created and both would have to renegotiate their international obligations, although this has never become a serious proposition. The current SNP position is that Scotland would not simply remain in the EU but would have to enter, but that this would be more or less automatic. Two roads have been suggested: there could be a treaty change to recognize Scotland as the 29th member state; or Scotland could apply as an accession state and get accelerated membership since it already meets the criteria.

In response, unionists have consistently suggested that Scotland would not be admitted; that another member state could veto Scottish accession; that accession could be very lengthy, and that Scotland would have to accept onerous terms including forced entry in to the Euro and the Schengen travel zone as well as the loss of its share of the UK rebate. In a recent BBC television interview, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, declared that Scottish membership would be ‘difficult if not impossible’ and compared it with the case of Kosovo. On other occasions, referring both to Scotland and Catalonia, he has said that a territory seceding from a member state would remain outside the European Union, including the single market. Without prejudice to the wider argument about whether Scottish independence is desirable, I believe that the unionist position is fundamentally wrong. When pressed on the details, they back off but the following week they always seem to be at it again.

Under the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement, Scotland would be recognized by the United Kingdom. This is in contrast to Kosovo, which is not recognized by some EU states because it is not recognized by Serbia. It is also in contrast to a hypothetical independent Catalonia, which would not be recognized by Spain. If Scotland is recognized by the UK there is no reason for any of the other EU members to refuse recognition. I know of no precedent for a seceding state, recognized by the host state, not being recognized by others. Incidentally, Barroso has got himself tied in knots with his repeated argument that an independent Catalonia would be outside the EU. The real point about the Spanish constitution is that an independent Catalonia is impossible altogether, so Catalonia could not be outside the EU. By suggesting that it would be outside the EU, Barroso has fallen into the trap of accepting that Catalonia could be independent.

EU membership is open to any recognized European democracy that meets the Copenhagen criteria and adopts the acquis communautaire. This is not defined in the treaties as an absolute right but there is a clear understanding that such states must be allowed in, otherwise the EU is betraying its founding principles and become a club rather than a union. Scotland has been within the EU/EC for over forty years and does meet the criteria as well as most states. It certainly looks a lot better than some recent members

It is in nobody’s interest to throw Scotland out of the single market. The EU has major problems on its hands just now and it beggars belief to think that the Commission and member states would commit the time, expense and general bother of unpicking Scotland’s links with the EU, including trade measures, product standards, movement of goods, people and services, and impose trade barriers. It is still less likely if they intend to let Scotland back into the Union in due course.  Business interests would also oppose creating a hole in the internal market and the costs that this would impose on them. No government has itself threatened to veto Scottish membership, although the Spanish government has repeatedly been invited to do so. They have shrewdly made the argument that Scotland does not set a precedent for Catalonia, ensuring that they do not end up on the losing side of the argument. They also know that threatening to veto Scottish membership, even if Scottish independence were negotiated legally and constitutionally, would be a further provocation to even the most moderate of Catalan and Basque nationalists.

Scottish membership would not take a long time to negotiate. Contrary to what Barroso and others have suggested, there is no ‘queue’ to get into the EU. Applicants are admitted as and when they are ready. Turkey first tried to get in 50 years ago, so if there were a queue it would be at the head; but in fact 22 other states have got in before them. As the UK Government noted in one of its papers, the Nordic states completed negotiations in 1-2 years.  Were Iceland or Norway to change their minds and apply now, they would be accepted very quickly. If Scotland does meet the requirements, Barroso (or his successor) would actually be obliged to make a favourable recommendation to the European Council and not to invent new political criteria.

It is unlikely that Scotland would be forced to join the Euro. Indeed it is odd that unionists, who think that it would be difficult for Scotland to join the EU, seem to think that getting into the Euro would be more straightforward. Joining the Euro is an arduous process that does not follow automatically from EU membership. Sweden does not have an opt-out from the Euro, but shows no sign of joining and would require a referendum to do so. The Czech Republic and Hungary are similarly in no hurry. As for the longer term, it would certainly be wise for an independent Scotland not to rule out Euro membership and the nationalists have left future currency options to future Scottish governments.

Getting into the Schengen zone is also a step beyond EU membership, although it is also required in principle. Since most states are trying to get in rather than stay out, we do not know how much pressure could really be brought to bear, but keeping the common travel area with the UK and Ireland would be enough to disqualify Scotland from Schengen in any case.

As for the rebate, it seems unlikely that the other member states would be happy to allow the UK to keep the whole of it during the present 2014-20 budget period and they certainly would not want to reopen budget negotiations. The most likely outcome would be division on a per capita basis. In the negotiations for the post-2020 budget, the UK is going to be under immense pressure, especially if it is making trouble and losing friends by trying to re-negotiate its position. It could only keep its rebate by making a case based on hard data about contributions and receipts. Such an argument would extend equally to Scotland, and possibly the UK’s only way of avoiding isolation on the issue would be to enlist the Scots as friends.

The main threat to Scotland’s remaining in the EU is the referendum promised by the Conservative Party for 2017, on continuing UK membership. It has been pointed out by various people, including Spanish foreign minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo, that if the rest of the UK were to vote No in that referendum, Scotland could have another referendum to secede from the UK and remain in the EU (Política, 06/03/2013). García-Margallo’s comments were actually made in a presentation about a book on Gibraltar, which will always make Spanish nationalists dubious allies for British unionists.

The unionist obsession with threatening Scottish exclusion from the EU has diverted attention from critical weaknesses in the nationalists’ case. The Scottish Governments’ White Paper on independence proposes to keep all the existing UK opt-outs, including the 2014 complete opt-out and partial opting-back-in on Justice and Home affairs, which it had previously opposed. If Europe moves in its own direction on financial regulation, a Scotland that keeps the Pound, as the SNP proposes, will be drawn back into the UK orbit. If the UK does move to a semi-detached relation with the EU, Scotland will be further pressured. Pro-European voters in Scotland may be looking for a more imaginative vision of what Scotland, as a small nation at the heart of Europe, might achieve.

Michael Keating is Professor of Politics, University of Aberdeen and Director of the ESRC Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change.