Could an independent Scotland re-join the EU by 2031?

Nicola Sturgeon is set to begin her push for another independence referendum after this week’s election. Adam Forrest takes a look at her chances of getting Scotland out of the UK and back into the EU

Tuesday 04 May 2021 14:33
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SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon
SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon
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icola Sturgeon believes Scotland has a brighter future inside the EU. “Scotland will be back soon, Europe – keep the light on,” the first minister tweeted on 1 January, when the UK finally turned its back on the bloc.

The SNP leader hopes a new dawn will break, eventually. But her own plan to get Scotland out of the cold, dark wilderness of post-Brexit Britain and back inside the EU’s rosy glow is still somewhat murky.

Sturgeon has yet to illuminate a clear path forward, despite her promise to stage a “legal” referendum on Scottish independence by the end of 2023 if there’s a pro-indy majority at Holyrood after this week’s election.

In the absence of any SNP roadmap for Europe, others have produced their own. The Institute for Government claims the route back to Brussels could take up to 10 years.

Other constitutional experts point to a similar timeframe. But however long and bumpy the ride – though indyref2, a divorce deal with London and an application to Brussels – it’s just about conceivable that Scots could once again be EU citizens by the end of 2031.

So how easy would it be for an independent Scotland to win EU membership? Would it mean accepting the euro? Could it involve yet another referendum for Scots – on EU membership – at the end of a negotiation process?

The Independent spoke to legal experts and political figures about what lies ahead if Scottish independence becomes a realistic prospect, and how Sturgeon and her team might best manage the process.

Anthony Salamone, who runs the Edinburgh-based political analysis firm European Merchants, thinks it would could take two to three years for a divorce deal with the UK after a successful independence referendum in 2023 – if all goes according to Sturgeon’s rough plan of action.

It would then take four to five years for the EU to accept an application from Scotland, Salamone thinks. “There’s no point pretending it would be really fast, or pretending that it would be impossible,” says the EU analyst.

“The process would be very much about Scotland demonstrating it is ready to be a member state. It would take some time to set up the institutions of a state – a central bank and so on. It would depend how quickly and efficiently an independent government would be able and willing to transform itself.”

March to Remain in the EU in Edinburgh in 2019

The EU’s Copenhagen criteria demands that prospective members have a stable democracy, a functioning market economy and are willing to sign up to the basic aims of the EU.

Dr Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER), agrees that a successful bid for membership in four to five years is realistic – although she describes it as a “best case scenario”.

She adds: “I don’t think there will be any special favours given to an independent Scotland. It won’t be accelerated. I think the EU will be seen to follow normal procedures.”

The UK’s European neighbours are watching current events in Brexitland with close interest. The SNP leader was the subject of a flattering four-page portrait in France’s Le Monde last week. The headline? “Nicola Sturgeon, Queen of Scotland.”

Still, any kind of “charm offensive” to soften up EU officials on Scotland’s suitability for membership will take time, patience and subtlety.

The Scottish government launched a European Friends of Scotland group last year – but the network of Scotophile MEPs is there purely to maintain friendly ties, rather than push for a breakaway.

Swedish MEP Erik Bergkvist and others in the group are cagey about talking about independence. Nevertheless, Bergkvist thinks EU institutions would be receptive to Scotland becoming a member – so long as it can agree on a “by the book” independence process with the UK.

“We know a lot about Scotland. It has a good track record. So I see no problems for Scotland [in joining],” the MEP says. “I would say it would be quite a simple process, because Scotland was until recently a member of the EU.”

Fellow member Terry Reintke, the Green MEP who has railed against Brexit in the European Parliament, adds: “If Scotland was to be an independent country at some point, then we would obviously be really favourable to Scotland re-joining the European Union.”

The German politician adds: “Scotland’s election is not our business. But if there was a situation like this [independence], there a lot of members of the European Parliament who say, ‘We have an open door and if you want to re-join we would be ready to support that.’”

Some very thorny issues lie ahead, however. There is the small matter of currency. The EU Commission and EU Council remain very keen on new members signing up for the euro, and would be unlikely to budge during negotiations.

“The EU institutions do not like opt-outs,” says Salamone. “I think an independent Scotland would be ill-advised to seek opt out generally, on the euro in particular.”

The currency question – which caused the Yes side such big problems during the 2014 referendum – seems to freak people out. One 2020 YouGov poll found that most Scots want to keep using the pound, with only 18 per cent in favour of switching to the euro. An awful lot of persuasion will be required to soften Scots up on the idea.

Pro-EU campaigners outside the Scottish Parliament as UK leaves bloc

There’s also the size of the deficit. New EU members are expected to work towards cutting budget deficits to 3 per cent or less. But there is some flexibility. New members can agree transition periods.

“The deficit is an issue,” says Dr Hughes. “Scotland might not have to meet it [3 per cent target] on day one, but the EU will be looking seriously at your plans to bring it down. There’s not a lot of wiggle room there.”

Getting a special opt-out on the Schengen Agreement, which allows for freedom of movement between members, might not be quite so tricky. The EU is likely to be receptive to the idea of a bespoke deal so an independent Scotland can join the Common Travel Area (CTA) with Ireland and the rest of the UK.

SNP bosses also face a huge decision on what happens at the end of any negotiation process. Would they put the terms of an agreement to the Scottish people at another referendum?

Sturgeon – reluctant to get into any of these matters at the moment – has suggested she doesn’t think a vote on EU membership would be necessary, given that 62 per cent of Scots voted against Brexit in 2016.

Senior SNP folk have struggled to maintain message discipline. Michael Russell, Scotland’s constitution secretary, recently claimed it could be “desirable” to hold a referendum on the EU, “depending on the circumstances”.

And the party’s foreign affairs spokesman Alyn Smith MP told Italian newspaper La Repubblica last week that the adoption of the euro was a “democratic question that should be put to the people of Scotland” in another vote.

The Scottish Tories have ridiculed their rivals’ “shallow and unclear” positioning. “They can’t get their stories straight,” says Conservative MSP Dean Lockhart, the party’s constitution spokesman.

Scotland’s constitution secretary Michael Russell with Nicola Sturgeon

Sturgeon has been reluctant to commit to clear positions on complex issues when there’s a winnable majority in front of her. But the questions cannot, surely, be ignored for much longer.

“SNP people seem surprised the debate is happening right now,” says the Edinburgh analyst Salamone. “I think it would be better to set out what you think sooner rather than later, because otherwise, the conversation is going to keep running without you.”

Dr Hughes also thinks it’s been “a bit of cop out” for Sturgeon not to have discussed EU membership during the election campaign.

“Voters do need to see the Scottish government and the SNP put out their own plan,” she says. “I don’t think we should wait to have a debate during a six-week independence referendum campaign. It’s bizarre to stand apart from the debate – it’s an excess of caution.”

Tricky questions about the EU are inseparable from the tricky question about separation from the UK. The SNP is clear that it wants to join the single market and customs union – but the Anglo-Scottish border would then become a new economic frontier.

Even if negotiations with EU faltered and a looser model of integration was eventually adopted, such as Scotland joining the European Economic Area (EEA), there’s no way of ensuring completely frictionless access to both the EU and the UK markets.

“The SNP has been consistently clear in our pledge to re-join the EU as soon as possible,” Jenny Gilruth MSP, the party’s Europe minister, tells The Independent. “People in Scotland voted decisively during the Brexit referendum to stay in the EU, yet an extreme Brexit has been imposed upon us against our will.”

At some point, the SNP team will have to move beyond Brexit indignation and start persuading people there is a plan, sense of purpose and ultimate port of call behind the push for independence.

Sturgeon’s big heave for indyref2 will soon begin in earnest, barring some strange results at the end of this week. She has a compelling story to tell about Europe: most Scots want back inside the big club in Brussels.

But unless the SNP leader clears up the details on the route she wants to take, her pro-union rivals will keep on claiming there’s no way through the mess.

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