Independence in the EU: Is Scotland set for fast track or long haul?
THE new EU-UK trade deal, skidding over the line just before the January 1st deadline, does not end the UK’s European question. Many years of detailed talks on the relationship, including areas not in the agreement (like much of services), loom ahead. Yet the deal does substantially clarify the implications of independence in the EU for relations between Scotland and the rest of the UK.
This is no small matter. An independent Scotland’s relationship with the European Union would be the most consequential decision of its future foreign policy. Small states such as Finland, Denmark, or Ireland all put the EU centre stage in their international policies. And, as the UK will find, leaving the gravitational pull of the EU is challenging indeed.
It could be argued that the Scottish Government goal of independence in the EU should be Scotland’s longer term aim. For now, Scotland might benefit from letting the new EU-UK relationship, however problematic, settle in. Setting up a new state will take time, not least the challenges of currency and managing the fiscal deficit in the aftermath of the Covid crisis. And a different UK government might move back closer to the EU, changing the implications for independence.
Some argue that Europe is not so important in independence debates, or suggest a transition over time via the European Economic Area (EEA) like Norway, or even favour a more Brexit-like Scexit where an independent Scotland is in neither the EU nor EEA.
Yet such hesitancy may mean missing the EU boat. Awareness of Scotland’s pro-remain vote is currently high across the EU. But interest in Scotland’s independence debate varies: it’s followed more in Berlin or the Hague than in Prague or Budapest. The EU has many other more important priorities to contend with.
Still, the upcoming Holyrood elections, alongside the new EU-UK deal, are also prompting substantial interest from EU media as to the prospects for Scottish independence. And EU political figures are fully aware that a fragmentation of the UK is possible.
The political challenge for the pro-independence side is how to build on and dynamise these current levels of awareness and sympathy. EU member state governments will stay neutral on the constitutional question. But there are plenty of politicians, not least in the European parliament (with an informal European friends of Scotland group), who insist that an independent Scotland would be welcome back in the EU. Even where governments, such as in France, Spain or the Netherlands, are concerned at the prospect of a disintegrating UK, there are opportunities to engage positively with their publics – as the UK’s baffling and self-harming ‘global Britain’ sets sail.
But European politics moves on. A Scottish rejection of the UK’s new post-Brexit trajectory is likely to have more salience, impact and support in the coming period than if it waits a decade. By 2030, the new EU-UK relationship will probably have settled down. Upsetting and recasting it might look more problematic then, whereas an independence referendum in 2022, for instance, would look like another unfolding, and eminently understandable, consequence of Brexit.
This is where those who caution against speed may be mistaken. It’s conceivable that if Scotland chose independence in 2022, it could re-join the EU ahead of the western Balkan candidates. Certainly, different EU opinion-formers see Scottish accession as much more straightforward, technically and politically. While the Scottish debate obsesses around currency and deficits, many EU observers see in Scotland a country that spent 47 years in the EU, is still aligned to EU rules, and is a stable, functioning democracy (more so than the UK).
But the independence debate needs to be alert to how it looks from the EU. And those who want a Scexit outside both the EU and EEA should explain the very difficult economics of that isolationist position. Nor does the simplistic dismissal of the EU’s single market as neoliberal, unfettered capitalism match the reality of the tough social and environmental level-playing field conditions that are in the EU-UK deal.
Those who prefer the Norway approach need to ask themselves why no other country since 1995 has chosen to join the EEA rather than the EU. It creates a major democratic deficit – a strange choice for a newly independent state, and in the case of Norway only happened after its public rejected the negotiated EU accession terms.
Nor is the EEA a transitional route to the EU; rather it might be taken as a signal of lack of interest. If Scotland wanted to re-join the EU that would need to be clear upfront after an independence vote. A candidate country usually agrees a specific association agreement with the EU, with the added plus of also unleashing both political support and financial assistance.
Independence in the EU will certainly mean a hard border between England & Wales and Scotland (a softer one to Northern Ireland). But the UK’s brave new world on the edge of the EU will give much insight into the implications of that border and likely costs and benefits for Scotland.
All of this assumes, of course, that there is a legal, constitutionally valid referendum, including clear political agreement between London and Edinburgh. The rather inward-looking debate around ‘plan B’ tends to ignore the fact that some plan Bs may be a hard sell in the EU. It might also be wise, in terms of future EU understanding, to put more emphasis on why Boris Johnson should allow a referendum if the SNP win a majority in May, rather than already weakening the impact of his potential ‘no’ by saying it’s expected.
The EU choice is not a side issue in the independence debate. It would determine the type of independent state Scotland would be: one that works with others, at the table, to influence EU choices, or one that sits it out on the sidelines. Striking while the iron is hot might provoke a more positive and welcoming European dynamic than a debate that is overly inward-looking and cautious.
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