Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Blog

Scotland: A More European people?

Ilaria Poggiolini


Giorgio Trovato

| 10 mins read

Since medieval times, the Scottish have not only viewed themselves as more moral, intelligent, and educated than the English, but also as a more European people.

Europeanism is not in the original DNA of the Scottish National Party. It was seen as a threat to Scotland’s eventual independence. Only since the 1980s, under the leadership of Alex Salmond, the now-ruling SNP is reconnecting with an old European allegiance as an alternative to being part of the United Kingdom.

But is this alternative feasible?

No short cuts

There are no short cuts for Scotland re-joining European politics and culture. For instance, earlier this year the European Commission refused the Scottish government’s post-Brexit request to renew the association with the Erasmus+ programme. They did not agree to  circumvent the present rule that allows nations but not regions to join.

Applying to become a member state would itself be a challenge. The vote on 6 March 2021 resulted, once more, in a Scottish parliament with a pro-independence majority. Sturgeon is keenly aware that the EU will not entertain a bid for membership unless the UK state has sanctioned a second referendum and certifies that a result has been legally obtained.

Assuming it will be, and the referendum won by the nationalists, Scotland would embark on the dual exercise of severing links with one Union, while seeking membership of another. What will be the reception? What will the EU make of Scotland, and Scotland of the EU?

An ideal marriage?

Both sides present it as an ideal marriage. In her speech at the European Policy Centre in June 2019, Sturgeon emphasised the identity of ideals between Scotland and the EU, invoking “the basic values of the EU are ones we identify with… there is an idealism to the EU project which appeals strongly to us… it is, at its heart, a peace project”.        

Before Brexit, European perceptions of Scotland as an independent nation were largely based on emotionally vague, romantic views - in tartan colours – at best inspired by the popularisation of Hugh Trevor Roper’s essay in Eric Hobsbawn’s ‘Invention of Tradition’. Post-Brexit opens a new political chapter in the continental perception of the Scottish nation now potentially returning to Europe.

Politically, the European Commission as well as France and Germany would be in favour. For instance, Donald Tusk, former Polish Prime Minister and former President of the European Council, has been more effusive than Nicola Sturgeon. He told the BBC he “felt very Scottish now, especially after Brexit. Emotionally, I have no doubt everybody would be very enthusiastic here (in Brussels)”.

The details

But so far, there has been little thought given to the details of this return to Europe – not on the EU side, and remarkably, not so much on the Scottish side either.

The political analyst Anthony Salamone wrote that Scotland’s “European themes… do not feature to an extent or depth that might be expected, given Scotland’s ostensible pro-EU position”.

If Scotland acquires independence constitutionally, the door opens to activating the accession process. Negotiations will include the timing of adoption, implementation, and enforcement of all EU rules by Scotland and an acquis Communautaire, that includes the Euro currency.

Crucially, Scotland must renounce the same opt-outs previously enjoyed as part of the UK in order to acquire credibility as a good European ­– one prepared to agree to rules, protocols and customs of a continental Union still committed to ever-greater integration.

Fabian Zuleeg, the director of the European Policy Centre, the EU Commission’s think tank, is of this view. He argues “that an independent Scotland would uphold and defend the principles of European integration, not least in accepting the terms and conditions of membership in full.”

That is, Scotland’s accession would be valued insofar as it demonstrates its allegiance to the European project. It also requires a solid case for entry, based both on realism and the realisation that inflated nationalist expectations (inspired, say, by Scottish exceptionalism) would not be a source of bargaining power at the negotiating table.

Key issues faced

Complex problems, more vexing than any the SNP has met so far, would confront the Scottish administration if it had a mandate to negotiate independence on one side of the English Channel, and union on the other.

The following are some of the larger issues that Scotland, the EU, and the rest of the UK (rUK) will face:

  1. Leaving the UK Union after over three centuries of political integration will require agreement on which national entity - Scotland or the rUK - will inherit treaty rights, obligations, and membership of international organisations (UN, OECD, Commonwealth World Bank, IMF and others). The Scottish government prefers co-equal status but the rUK, which would have over 90 per cent of the present UK population, would probably be seen internationally as the successor state, except when right, obligations, and memberships regard entirely or mainly, Scotland.
  2. Though Scotland may be able to remain, with the Irish Republic, within the common UK travel area, the EU would insist on a hard border between Scotland and rUK. Scottish government ministers tend to dismiss fears of loss of trade because of the border by pointing to the much larger EU market which would open up to the country: however, the present fact is that over 60 per cent of Scots exports go to the rUK, 17 per cent to the EU.
  3. In February 2021, the LSE produced a report “Disunited Kingdom: Brexit, Trade and Scottish Independence” which sketched a highly pessimistic picture of the consequences of the hard border. The Scottish government should address this key negotiating issue possibly by obtaining the support of the Irish government.
  4. Three years are expected to lapse between the hypothetical introduction of the Scottish Reserve Bank after a second independence referendum, and the circulation of a Scottish currency. This means that Scotland’s transition to full membership of the EU would imply blending the timings of the creation of the Scottish currency - and of its demise - with that of the political and diplomatic process from independence to formal negotiations and conclusions of an Association Agreement (AA), and finally to the application for EU membership, assuming that no queuing would be required.

On most relevant aspects of entry negotiations Scotland would facilitate her progress towards EU accession by obtaining access to the single market via an AA, followed by chapter-by-chapter negotiations. The whole process will be inevitably slow and influenced by the state of the economy after Covid19 and by economic projections with the end of subsidies from London and the risk that oil prices would continue to drop.

The complexity and negative effects of the secession on rUK would ensure that negotiations would be complex and potentially very bitter. The negotiations for EU membership would also be quite unpredictable.

Once the two processes of Scottish monetary creation and EU membership finally merge, the question of Scotland joining the Euro, and the length of the transition period, would pose a further fundamental challenge to the SNP leadership poised between playing the part of the committed prospective member and taking an irrevocable step towards the Euro area.

With that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that there is almost no documented material and debate produced by EU institutions and member states on how the Scottish return to Europe is to be managed.

The devil is in the detail of this variegated process of removing Scotland from the UK and becoming part of the EU.

In Europe, the Scottish return would inevitably be framed as a very special accession, potentially revamping the attractiveness of the European project and threatening the rUK with post Brexit disintegration. Scotland, as the breakaway region of the first member state to secede and request EU membership, is a PR success for Brussels. But this would leave the Scottish government with no diplomatic room for manoeuvre in accession negotiations because unreserved willingness to embrace the EU acquis is what is expected across the channel.

Accession can only be achieved by demonstrating that this ‘more European’ people of Scotland are fully embracing all previous and present commitments within the EU. The question is whether an SNP government will be as accommodating as expected in signing off its full national prerogatives, which would have just recovered after gaining independence from the UK.   

  • Ilaria Poggiolini

    Ilaria Poggiolini

    Ilaria Poggiolini is a Professor of International History, a member of the teaching staff of the Doctorate Program in History at the University of Pavia.

    Articles by Ilaria Poggiolini
Volume 95, Issue 1

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