As a constituent part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has been part of the European Union and its predecessor, the European Economic Community, since 1972, the date of the first EEC enlargement, when Ireland and Denmark also joined.
As such, Scotland has been exempt from several conditions that would be required of an independent country seeking EU membership today. Scotland hasn’t had to join the eurozone or become a member of the Schengen zone, which allows all EU citizens to travel freely throughout 26 of the 28 member states (Ireland and the United Kingdom are the exceptions). It has also received some of the benefit of those rebates that Margaret Thatcher clawed back from Europe in the 1980s.
An independent Scotland might be forced to accept, at least in principle, joining either or both of the the eurozone the Schengen zone as a condition of re-accession to the European Union. The former could complicate the assurances that Scottish first minister Alex Salmond has tried to give that Scotland could continue using the British pound and, like Ireland today, share open borders with what remains of the United Kingdom.
But that’s might be the least of its worries. As the first region of an existing EU member-state to become independent, there’s no clear precedent for Scotland’s future EU accession if its voters choose independence in a first-of-its-kind referendum taking place on September 18. During German reunification, East Germany automatically acceded by merging with West Germany, already an EEC member. The Czech Republic and Slovakia were separated for 11 years before either entered the European Union, so they naturally entered on separate terms. So the quest to ‘rejoin’ the European Union could be much harder than seamlessly transitioning from a current member-state into the 29th member-state.
The outgoing president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, raised eyebrows earlier this year when he appeared to pour doubt on the assurances of the ‘Yes’ campaign that Scotland’s future EU membership would essentially be automatic. Instead, Barroso suggested that Scotland would have to re-apply as a member-state candidate, warning that any country could veto Scottish membership. In the worst case, that could sew doubts for years over Scotland and trap it outside the European single market.
Last week, Olli Rehn, the widely respected former EU commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, and now a member of the European parliament representing Finland, argued that Scotland would have to use the euro, and not an independent currency or the British pound, if it wanted to join the European Union. Though economists disagree over whether Scotland would be better off retaining the pound or creating a new currency, they almost universally agree that the euro is a poor fit for Scotland. The new country would be, for a long time, much more integrated with the English than the European economy. It might also be more subject to oil shocks than the rest of the eurozone — one reason why Norway hasn’t been keen on joining even the European Union, let alone the eurozone.
There’s some dispute over how Scotland might, technically, come into the European Union, too. Salmond and pro-independence advocates argue that Scotland could avail itself of Article 48 of the Treaty of the European Union, which essentially allows a short-circuit through the typical path to accession. Article 48 allowed the European Council to create a convention by simple majority to change EU rules. The convention could adopt a recommendation and submit it to the EU member-states for unanimous approval.
Opponents argue that Scotland would have to turn to Article 49 of the EU treaty, which governs the accession of new states and which also allows a single member-state to block accession. Realistically, Article 49 is a more likely path than Article 48 because it directly addresses admitting new members. While there’s no EU precedent for Scotland’s admission to the European Union, there are international precedents for countries like Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic in 1993. Generally speaking, ‘new’ countries, even those that spring from existing ones, are obligated under international law to reapply for admission in multinational organizations. Typically, the process almost always goes smoothly.
That might not be the case for Scotland. Like Iceland, which sought EU membership briefly between 2009 and 2013, Scotland will have adopted all or much of the acquis communautaire, the EU-wide body of law. Article 49 admission would involve some negotiations, confirmation that Scotland has implemented all 35 chapters of the acquis, and the approval of all 28 member-states. But the 1995 accession of three EU member-states — Austria, Finland and Sweden — show that it could be accomplished with great speed.
But Spain is facing an unofficial independence referendum forced by separatists in Catalunya in November, and Scottish success in next week’s referendum could embolden not only Catalan nationalism, but Basque nationalism as well. Other countries like Belgium, which faces a growing Flemish separatist threat, might also be unenthusiastic about the signal that a successful independence vote would send. Some reports claim that the Spanish and Belgian governments would veto Scotland’s accession indefinitely.
Though Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy indicated last year that Scotland would have to begin life as an independent nation outside the European Union (closing the door to an easy Article 48 solution that could be worked out between the referendum and the proposed independence date of March 2016), he hasn’t necessarily said that he would veto it in the way that former French president Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed the original British accession in the 1960s. Spanish foreign minister José García-Margallo in February agreed that Scotland would have to re-apply for admission, but indicated that Spain would take a measured line.
Rajoy might not even be prime minister in 2016, but even if he were and he wanted to make a stand against Scotland’s EU accession, it could easily backfire, especially if the United Kingdom isn’t seeking to block Scottish accession.
In trying to dissuade Catalan and Basque separatists who would want to follow Scotland’s path to independence, Rajoy might accidentally embolden them by so openly thwarting the self-determination of what would be a sovereign state.
Moreover, at a time when European leaders are working to demonstrate that EU institutions can respond to democratic incentives, German chancellor Angela Merkel, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker (who himself comes from a small state) and others might be horrified to watch Spain or Belgium wantonly disregard the democratic results of Scotland’s legal referendum.
Ironically, it’s the success of the European Union that’s made Scottish independence so possible. By providing a penumbra of supranational regulation and governance, growing EU power means that Westminster’s role on everyday life in Scotland is becoming less important. That effect is amplified by the 1999 devolution of local powers to Scotland’s parliament, decisions that were made in London even a decade ago are now made in Edinburgh or Brussels. So long as Scotland remains a EU member, independence is much less radical today than it was in 1972 or 1982 or even 2002.
Also, ironically, Scotland (which is generally more pro-EU than its English neighbors) might have a better long-term chance of remaining in the European Union if it votes for independence. That’s because British prime minister David Cameron has a 2017 referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued EU membership. With the growing influence of eurosceptics within Cameron’s own Conservative Party and in the increasingly influential UK Independence Party (UKIP), Scotland in 2016 or 2017 might seem like the ‘good’ country inhabiting the island of Great Britain.
In the context of difficult negotiations among London, Brussels and Berlin, European leaders might be readier to extend EU membership to eager Scotland than to hand over greater concessions to an ever-more distant England.
Photo credit to Tim Graham/Getty Images.