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The paradox of an independent Scotland

Better tae bide still than rise an faa.
The Wee Book Of Calvin

For whatever reason, the Scots remain remarkably starry-eyed about the European Union (EU) compared to the rest of the folk in the UK, especially the English. Polling evidence suggested that a decent majority of both sides in the 2014 independence referendum were equally supportive of EU membership. Though punching above their weight politically in the United Kingdom (UK), many Scots seem to have a sizeable chip on their shoulder, and the referendum debate exposed a perceived victimhood like never before. Notably, more socialist leaning Scotland has long resented Conservative governments in London, despite greatly increased autonomy through the introduction of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 which transferred significant legislative and some tax-raising powers. Compared to those who have truly suffered in their struggles for representation and civil rights (such as the Irish or African Americans), most modern Scots have little good reason to feel especially hard done by. Are the Scots really so resentful of what remains of Westminster rule that any overlords - even European ones - would be better than English overlords? The political philosopher Larry Siedentop has remarked:

People would rather be oppressed by strangers than by people they know. The recollection of social inferiority works against the habit of association and paves the way for government by strangers, by servants of a remote central power.
The Scottish National Party (SNP), which has formed the Scottish Government since 2007, led the unsuccessful campaign for Scotland to become independent, while it also insisted that Scotland should be a member of the EU. Paradoxically, those who railed against London and UK ties were quite prepared to surrender the sovereignty and distinctive legal system of a so-called "independent" Scotland to the behemoth of Brussels and the EU. The UK's current level of influence over the EU is contentious and dubious, and certainly unable to prevent the EU's rampant ambition to become the 'United States of Europe'. With a mere 8.4% of the UK's population, an independent Scotland would have been in the bottom third of EU members sized by population. Its "place at the top table" of the EU would have been essentially symbolic and compliant, regardless of its undoubted bargaining chips such as oil, fish and renewable energy resources. Regardless of the SNP's bluster, Scotland would be just too small and too late coming to the federalist party to exercise any significant influence or restraint on the EU.

Both sides of the referendum campaign engaged in an unedifying race to buy off the Scots with promises of a yearly dividend per head for leaving the UK (best bid £1000) or staying in (best bid £1400). Research had indicated that as little as £500 could have been a referendum deal breaker. Of course, these sums should be compared with the true cost of EU membership, estimated at over £7,000 a year for the average household in the UK.

The likely EU scenario

If Scotland had voted Yes to independence, we consider below the most likely scenario which would have unfolded concerning Scotland's relationship with the EU. Likelihoods are based primarily on our knowledge of political precedents and pragmatism within the EU and Scotland, and less on trusting the various pronouncements made by politicians during the referendum campaign, or the strict application of EU rules.

  • An independent Scotland would have inherited neither membership of the EU nor an entitlement to the UK's current dispensations; Scotland would have been deemed an entirely new state outwith existing EU treaties. As EU expansionism would have been attracted by Scotland's existing compliance with the acquis communautaire and its relative wealth and resources, Scotland would have been strongly encouraged to apply to join the EU as a new member. Academics may argue whether Article 48 (amendments to treaties by existing members) or Article 49 (dealing with new applicant countries) of the Treaties of the EU would have applied, but the crucial issue would have been the quality of the membership deal that the Scottish Government could have negotiated, given that it had to be agreed by all the existing 28 member states. With significant political anxiety about separatist movements in other areas of the EU (for example, Catalonia, Flanders and the Basque country), Scotland could have been forced to make deep concessions to avoid countries such as Spain vetoing its membership. Also, some member states may have been most unwilling to grant special opt-outs to Scotland on measures which they have had to adopt themselves. Informed blogger Jon Worth summarized the situation thus: "Scotland joining the EU would neither be the formality that Salmond [SNP leader] would want, nor would it be the legal and political torture that defenders of the UK claim."
  • Any new country joining the EU is legally obliged to participate in the euro currency. Before a country can join the eurozone it needs a functioning Central Bank and so this would have to be established in Scotland, with other financial and economic criteria to be met. It is doubtful whether Scotland would have sufficient political or economic clout to negotiate some compromise or delay in euro participation. A "commitment to eventually joining the euro" is unlikely to be accepted by other member states, especially in the wake of the eurocrisis where the EU is grabbing ever greater economic and fiscal control over its member states. Further, the true will of the SNP (assuming it would have remained in power) to resist the euro was much softer than its then leader or supporters would admit in public. So Scotland would probably have joined the eurozone sooner or later, or might have been driven to it if the SNP's plan to use the pound sterling in an independent Scotland turned into a debacle. The letter from Olli Rehn (former European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro, and former Commissioner for Enlargement) clearly showed how the pro-independence lobby was misleading the Scottish public on currency and membership.
  • If it were a new member of the EU, an independent Scotland would not have been entitled to a "Scottish share" of the UK's rebate from the EU budget - it would not have existed. As the UK already attracts much resentment from other EU countries about its rebate and opt-outs, it is almost inconceivable that Scotland could have successfully concluded any kind of similar deal with the rest of the EU. Ironically, as a new member of the EU, Scotland would have had to contribute to the UK rebate like other member states. Note that the current UK rebate is worth about £135 each year to every household in Scotland.
  • As part of the EU's institutional and legal framework, all new EU member states are required to commit to joining the Schengen area of internal open borders. However, the SNP Scottish Government had stated its intention to opt out of Schengen, since its preference was to remain part of the Common Travel Area (comprising the UK, Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands). There would also have been huge public and business pressure on the Scottish Government to keep the open border between Scotland and England regardless; the EU would have been foolish not to recognize this priority. It was therefore more likely that some fudge or derogation, probably temporary, might have been negotiated with the EU on this matter. With a Scottish Government otherwise pro-EU, Schengen should not have been a major stumbling block to Scotland joining the EU.
  • The SNP's confident assertion that Scotland could have become legally independent from the UK and joined the EU by March 2016 - within 18 months of voting for independence - was unlikely to have been realized. Based on previous new accessions, most experts think that EU membership takes much longer to attain, probably years rather than months. Scotland's situation would have been novel, and there would be many complex legalities, negotiations and political obstacles to overcome, even with goodwill on all sides at UK and EU levels. But if an SNP government really had stuck to its declared intentions of opting out of joining the euro and the Schengen area, the situation would inevitably have become much more complicated and drawn out with the EU.

The SNP's amazing EU conversion

Paolo Dardanelli, a political scientist from the University of Kent, described in his 2003 paper Europeanisation of the Scottish National Party (SNP) how the SNP's attitude to the EU has been driven more by political opportunism than principle:

"In the 1970s, the SNP had a deeply negative perception of the European Union. The prevailing view was that the EU featured, on a larger scale, the same centralising tendencies, in political and economic terms, of the United Kingdom. Therefore, the process of European integration was the continuation of the process of centralisation that had taken place at the British level and, as such, it threatened to inflict further political and economic damage on Scotland ... The SNP thus opposed entry into the EU in 1972 and campaigned for a No vote in the 1975 referendum."

"Between 1988-1992, the party felt that its new 'Independence in Europe' policy would be a vote-winner ... The SNP's perception of the European Union in this period was radically different from that of the 1970s. The party moved from being the one most opposed to European integration to being, in certain respects, the one most in favour of it ... By 1988, not only had the party fully accepted Scotland's membership of the European Union but it had turned it into the cornerstone of its independence policy ... the SNP built a new policy of seeking secession from the UK but placing an independent Scotland firmly in the context of EU membership, under the slogan of 'Independence in Europe' ... explicitly intended to take advantage of the incentives and opportunities that the EU system was offering in order to increase the appeal of independence - hence of the SNP - at mass public level."

Later, the SNP was enthusiastic about adopting the euro as an independent Scotland's currency. Its 2004 European Manifesto stated that "The SNP believes that the euro offers significant economic benefits to Scotland and would be preferable to sterling"; and Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy Leader, reiterated in October 2006: "The SNP supports Scotland joining the Euro". However, when the ongoing eurozone crisis broke in early 2009, the euro became politically toxic and the SNP turned around yet again and declared a new-found love for sterling as a currency. Leader Alex Salmond said in May 2013: "An independent Scotland will keep the pound because, first and foremost, Sterling is Scotland's currency every bit as much as it is that of England, Wales and Northern Ireland." Principle was again sacrificed to political expediency, in a cynical attempt to persuade the sceptical Scottish public to back independence.

European Parliament election

The elections to the European Parliament in 2014 certainly threw up some intriguing results in Scotland (as well as elsewhere in the UK). Notably, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) won its first ever Scottish seat taking 10.5% share of the vote, more than doubling its effort in the 2009 election. Meanwhile the most blatant pro-EU party, the Liberal Democrats, lost almost 40% of its votes, slumping to a 7.1% share. Changes to other parties' votes were relatively undramatic, with the SNP and Conservative shares almost unchanged, though Labour managed to increase its share by a quarter.

It is also interesting to see what happens if we group together the results for parties which have declared themselves for or against the continuation of the UK, and for or against membership of the EU.

EuroParl electionSeats% Turnout
2014633.5%
Group of parties% Vote% Electorate
Pro-UK71.0%23.8%
Anti-UK29.0%9.7%
Group of parties% Vote% Electorate
Pro-EU87.3%29.2%
Anti-EU12.7%4.3%

Unionist support would seem remarkably robust at both UK and EU levels, but of course these results are based on a poor turnout and we know that there is a wide diversity of views on the EU within the largest parties, particularly the Conservatives. Predictions are therefore hazardous, but the Scots still appear to be particularly sanguine about the EU.

Who do EU believe?

Make your own mind up about who was fibbing, or at least being "economical with the truth", on the pivotal independence issues of EU membership, joining the euro single currency, and joining the Schengen area of open borders:

WhoWhenWhat they said about: Membership of the EU
Olli Rehn, former European Commissioner for Enlargement, and former Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs & the Euro September 2014 In case Scotland were to opt for independence and wanted to stay in or in fact re-join the European Union, it would have to apply according to the normal well-known procedures under the relecent articles of the Treaty on European Union ... an independent Scotland would have to negotiate on EU membership and fulfil the judicial, political and economic criteria as any other European country seeking to join.
Jean-Claude Juncker, new President of the European Commission July 2014 Mr Van Rompuy ... and Mr Barroso were perfectly clear on that [an independent Scotland's relationship with the EU]. I don't have to change a word as far as [their] declarations are concerned.
José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission February 2014 In case there is a new country, a new state, coming out of a current member state, it will have to apply and the application and the accession to the European Union will have to be approved by all the other member states of the European Union ... I don't want to interfere on your referendum here, your democratic discussion here, but of course it will be extremely difficult to get the approval of all the other member states to have a new member coming from one member state. We have seen Spain has been opposing even the recognition of Kosovo, for instance. So it is to some extent a similar case because it's a new country and so I believe it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, a new member state coming out of one of our countries getting the agreement of the others.
HM Government of the UK January 2014 In the event of a vote for independence, in the eyes of the world and in law, Scotland would become an entirely new state ... it would have to go through some form of accession process to become a member of the EU. It would also have to enter into negotiations on the terms of its membership. It cannot be assumed that Scotland would be able to negotiate the favourable terms of EU membership which the UK enjoys. Some Member States may be unwilling to grant special opt-outs to Scotland on measures which they have had to adopt themselves. Others have their own independence movements to consider, which will influence how they view Scotland's membership of the EU. Scotland's negotiations to join the EU could be complex and long.
Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council December 2013 If a part of the territory of a Member State ceases to be a part of that state because that territory becomes a new independent state, the treaties will no longer apply to that territory. In other words, a new independent state would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the Union and the treaties would, from the day of its independence, not apply anymore on its territory. [Any new state could] apply to become a member of the Union [in line with established accession treaties, but] this would be subject to ratification by all Member States and the Applicant State.
Ivan Grdešić, Croatian Ambassador to the UK November 2013 Our experience is that it's really not a negotiation process, you are actually joining the club that already has all the rules and all the regulations that you have to adopt ... Negotiating accession is really not a negotiating process – it's pretty much taking the decisions already done and written down in Brussels ... you take pretty much what is offered because you cannot change the rules ... It's a template.
Mariano Rajoy, Prime Minister of Spain November 2013 If part of a member state becomes independent, it would be left out of the European Union and it would be good for citizens (in the EU) and Scots to know that ... EU entry would need to be approved by all 28 member states ... I am very clear, as everyone is, that a country that obtained independence from the EU would end up outside of it, and it's right that Scottish citizens and all the citizens of the Union know that ... What I want is for the Scottish to be presented realistically with the consequences of secession. If one part if a member state splits, it would become a third country in relation to the EU. It is the law.
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland November 2013 Our position is we're very happy to enter talks with the European Commission [now], but it's clear the talks have to start with the member states, and the UK doesn't want to do that ... We believe Scotland will be a welcome member of the EU, and we believe the timetable [18 months] for doing this is realistic.
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland April 2013 Any serious consideration of the history of Europe would recognize that in recent decades the European Union has been a force for good, a force for peace, prosperity and security ... European Union membership brings massive benefits and opportunities for Scotland ... Following a vote for independence in 2014, the Scottish Government would immediately make a notification of intent, confirming that as an independent nation, we want to continue within the European Union. Our planned independence date is March 2016.
José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission December 2012 What I said, and it is our doctrine and it is clear since 2004 in legal terms, if one part of a country ... wants to become an independent state, of course as an independent state it has to apply to the European membership according to the rules - that is obvious ... We are a union of states, so if there is a new state, of course, that state has to apply for membership and negotiate the conditions with other member states. For European Union purposes, from a legal point of view, it is certainly a new state. If a country becomes independent it is a new state and has to negotiate with the EU.
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland August 2012 An independent Scotland would inherit membership of the EU as a successor state, in the same way as the rest of the UK ... Scotland's constitutional position within the UK is very different from the Spanish context, but in any event Spain have already confirmed that they would have no objections to Scottish independence and membership of the EU.
Romano Prodi, former President of the European Commission March 2004 When a part of the territory of a Member State ceases to be a part of that state, eg. because that territory becomes an independent state, the treaties will no longer apply to that territory. In other words, a newly independent region would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the Union and the treaties would, from the day of its independence, not apply anymore on its territory. An application of this type requires, if the application is accepted by the Council acting unanimously, a negotiation on an agreement between the Applicant State and the Member States on the conditions of admission and the adjustments to the treaties which such admission entails. This agreement is subject to ratification by all Member States and the Applicant State.

WhoWhenWhat they said about: Joining the euro
Olli Rehn, former European Commissioner for Enlargement, and former Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs & the Euro September 2014 Any candidate country must be committed to the Economic and Monetary Union, which implies the will and expected capacity to meet the convergence criteria of euro membership in due course ... As to the question whether 'sterlingisation' were compatible with EU membership, the answer is that this would simply not be possible, since that would obviously imply a situation where the candidate country concerned would not have a monetary authority of its own and thus no necessary instruments of the EMU.
HM Government of the UK January 2014 All new EU Member States have been required to commit to joining both the euro and the Schengen area. The Scottish Government's stated intention to retain the pound ... is at odds with the EU's rules for new members, and is not in the Scottish Government's gift.
European Union, Chapter 17 of the acquis (EU law) January 2014 Member States are expected to co-ordinate their economic policies and are subject to the Stability and Growth Pact on fiscal surveillance. New Member States are also committed to complying with the criteria laid down in the Treaty in order to be able to adopt the euro in due course after accession.
Scottish Government November 2013 It is very clear that there are simply no conceivable circumstances in which an independent Scotland would be 'forced to join' the Eurozone.
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland November 2013 The idea that euro membership is compulsory is completely wrong. It's obligatory to be in the ERM for two years, but it's voluntary as to whether to join the euro.
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland April 2013 And I believe in terms of a monetary arrangement in the sterling area, that gives us sufficient fiscal discretion in terms of embarking on a different course over taxation and spending, which will allow us to create a different sort of society.
Dr Jo Murkens, Senior Lecturer in Law at London School of Economics, evidence to Foreign Affairs Committee, UK parliament September 2012 All (old and new) Member States (except UK and Denmark, who secured opt-outs in the Maastricht Treaty) are expected eventually to join the Mechanism and to adopt the Euro. All the new [Member States] (after 2004) are legally obliged to adopt the Euro at some future point (with no opt-out clauses) ... None of the above suggests a true policy choice for the SNP ... Both EU membership and the issue of the Euro will not be decided by the SNP or by the people of Scotland, but will be regulated (in principle) by the EU Treaties and (on the detail) by the Commission and the other Member States in negotiations with an independent Scotland.
Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy Leader of the SNP October 2006 An independent Scotland would automatically inherit EU membership on the same terms as the remainder of the UK. The SNP supports Scotland joining the Euro ...
John Swinney, former Leader of the SNP May 2004 Scotland is being held back by not joining the single currency ... we could take a positive decision that would give Scotland the type of financial framework that would allow us to prosper.
SNP European Manifesto 2004 The SNP believes that the euro offers significant economic benefits to Scotland and would be preferable to sterling ...

WhoWhenWhat they said about: Joining the Schengen area
HM Government of the UK January 2014 All new EU Member States have been required to commit to joining both the euro and the Schengen area. The Scottish Government’s stated intention to ... join the Common Travel Area is at odds with the EU's rules for new members, and is not in the Scottish Government's gift.
Wikipedia January 2014 The Amsterdam Treaty incorporated them [the Schengen treaties] into European Union law, while providing opt-outs for the only two EU member states which had remained outside the Area: Ireland and the United Kingdom. Schengen is now a core part of EU law and all EU member states without an opt-out who have not already joined the Schengen Area are legally obliged to do so when technical requirements have been met.
Eurotool.net January 2014 The Schengen acquis is the set of rules adopted under the Schengen Convention ... It is now part of the EU institutional and legal framework and countries applying to join the EU will have to fulfil its requirements.
Scottish Government November 2013 There are absolutely no grounds to believe that the EU would challenge Scotland remaining part of the CTA [Common Travel Area] rather than joining the Schengen area.
Nicola Sturgeon, Deputy Leader of the SNP December 2012 And just like Ireland we would not enter Schengen but would instead look to co-operate with the rest of the UK in the Common Travel Area. Both of these positions are practical and justifiable and would, I am sure, be supported by all parties here in Scotland. The evidence suggests they would be understood by our European partners.
European Union, Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union October 2012 PROTOCOL (No 19), Article 7: For the purposes of the negotiations for the admission of new Member States into the European Union, the Schengen acquis and further measures taken by the institutions within its scope shall be regarded as an acquis which must be accepted in full by all States candidates for admission.