Thursday

6th Aug 2020

Analysis

Dr Who and the EU: Priorities for an independent Scotland

  • An independent Scotland would keep Dr Who and EU membership say nationalists (Photo: The Laird of Oldham)

An independent Scotland would keep the BBC's Dr Who, the pound and the EU, although perhaps not in that order.

At least, that was the pitch from the country's first minister, Alec Salmond, as he unveiled his plans for Scottish independence on Tuesday (26 November).

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Scotland will vote on whether to leave the UK in September 2014. That is the simple part. What would follow next looks like the sort of legal minefield that must already have lawyers salivating.

For one thing, the question: 'Would an independent Scotland remain part of the EU' seems to get a different answer from each person you ask. The Scottish government is clear that the answer is yes. "Between a Yes vote in 2014 and independence day, Scotland will agree the terms of our continuing membership of the EU," the paper states, adding for good measure that "this will happen while we are still part of the UK and part of the EU, ensuring a smooth transition to independent membership."

Under the 670-page blueprint 'Scotland's Future', which covers everything from welfare policy to NATO membership, the Edinburgh government would have about eighteen months to negotiate the status of its independence and its continuing membership of the EU.

The negotiations would work "on the basis of the principle of continuity of effect." meaning that Scotland’s transition to independent membership would be based on the existing EU Treaty obligations and provisions that apply to Scotland as part of the UK.

Clear enough? Well, not according to analysis by law professors James Crawford from Cambridge University and Alan Boyle from the University of Edinburgh which formed the basis of a legal opinion published by the UK government in February.

"There is no clear precedent for a metropolitan part of an EU member state becoming independent and then either claiming automatic membership or seeking in its own right to join the EU," say Crawford and Boyle, commenting that "on the face of the EU treaties and other indications, it seems likely that Scotland would be required to join the EU as a new member state."

Meanwhile, in response to parliamentary questions, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has indicated that Scotland would have to negotiate its accession like any other prospective member.

"A new state, if it wants to join the EU has to apply to become a member of the EU, like any state," said the Commission chief. In other words, Scottish EU membership would require a treaty amendment with the unanimous support of all EU countries, including Britain.

Neither is the legal uncertainty restricted to overall EU membership. An independent Scotland would also keep the pound sterling and the Bank of England as its lender of last resort, although this, too, would require special treatment since all prospective EU countries are required to eventually join the euro. It would also join the UK and Ireland in staying out of the Schengen border-free area.

Either way, the results will be interesting to Catalonia, which will hold its own plebiscite on whether to split from Spain in 2014. It also raises the intriguing prospect of the UK and Scottish governments meeting on either side of the revolving door of EU membership if David Cameron is able to make good on his promise to hold an 'in/out' referendum on UK membership in 2017.

But aside from the politics of independence, 'Scotland's Future' is about money and, specifically, how Scotland will have more than enough of it outside the UK. The paper repeatedly compares Scotland to Scandinavian countries and claims that if Scotland had seen similar economic growth rates to those countries between 1977 and 2007, the average Scot would be £900 (€1100) per year better off.

The tone of 'Scotland's Future' is one of reassurance that independence would not fundamentally change every-day life for Scots, hence the reference to Dr Who, the popular sci-fi programme which is a

staple of Saturday evening TV.

It is also the first serious shot across the bows by the Nationalist government in what will probably be a bruising campaign. The paper got short shrift from Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael who commented that "rarely have so many words been used to answer so little."

The Scottish referendum campaign is set to be among the most interesting political side-shows in Europe next year.

The disagreements on what independence would mean for Scotland's EU status underscore the fact that this is uncharted territory.

Although opinion polls suggest that Scots would not vote for full independence if the vote were held tomorrow, the battle has barely begun. A skilled populist, Alec Salmond is one of Britain's top politicians and has dominated Scottish politics since the Scottish parliament and devolved government were established in 1999.

For decades, Scotland was effectively a one-party state, with Labour holding most of the parliamentary seats and control of Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland's two biggest cities. No more. The Scottish Nationalists have now been in power for five years and hold a commanding majority in the Edinburgh parliament.

So while the prospect of the UK breaking up is still unthinkable to millions of Britons, it would take a brave person to bet against Salmond becoming the next leader to take a seat at the European Council table.

Scottish EU membership is 'no formality'

The rest of the UK should support a 'fast-tracked' application for an independent Scotland to join the EU, according to a report published Wednesday by MPs.

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