3rd Oct 2023


For Scotland, the debate on Brexit is still not over

  • Scotland needs better debates on EU relations today and possible EU membership in the future. In their absence, Scotland will continue to fade into the European political background (Photo: Valentina Pop)
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In Edinburgh, the Scottish Parliament still flies the European flag outside. Two years after the UK formally left the EU, it is a reminder of how the majority of people in Scotland feel about Brexit.

While most Scottish politicians remain favourable towards the EU, how they channel that sentiment depends on their constitutional outlook. For those who support Scottish independence, it means, of course, Scotland becoming a separate EU member state.

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For those who back the UK union, it means either the UK rejoining the EU or, most often these days, accepting Brexit reluctantly.

In fact, the question of Scottish independence gives arguments over the principle of leaving the EU a distinct political longevity in Scotland, compared to the rest of the United Kingdom.

For Scotland, the debate on Brexit is still not over. It will never be over, so long as "reversing Brexit" through Scottish EU membership remains a central argument of most advocates for independence.

Following the Scottish parliamentary election last spring, the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) remains in power in Edinburgh. It entered into a non-coalition cooperation agreement with the Scottish Greens, which also support statehood for Scotland.

The Scottish government's current pledge is to hold an independence referendum by the end of 2023, though such a prospect is uncertain.

Brexit is the bedrock of the government's rationale for seeking to hold a new referendum so soon after the first one in 2014. It is also the basis for its most cited independence arguments – so much so that it would now be challenging to imagine the SNP's case for independence without Brexit.

Since the UK's 2016 referendum, one of the most notable developments in Scottish politics has been the solidification of the SNP's pro-EU position.

While it has championed the idea of "independence in Europe" (statehood plus EU membership) for decades, the SNP also long-housed supporters of the 'Norway option' (joining the European Economic Area), plus even eurosceptics who would favour a Brexit-style relationship with the EU.

However, around the time of UK's formal withdrawal from the EU, a shift occurred in the rhetoric of the party leadership.

Since then, the SNP has been resolute in promising with determination that Scotland will join the EU as an independent state. The wider message is evident: no alternative relationships with the EU are to be brooked.

In last spring's election campaign, first minister Nicola Sturgeon went so far as to say that the SNP would not support holding a Scottish EU accession referendum, despite that being common practice for new member states. It is questionable whether that position would be tenable, if Scotland actually became independent.

So fused are its Brexit and independence arguments that observers of Scottish politics could get the false impression that Brexit is still yet to happen. The reality, as we know, is that Scotland is outside the EU.

'Rejoining' may be in 2030s

Moreover, it will remain so for years to come – however its constitutional debate evolves.

The default outcome is that Scotland stays part of the UK and lives with Brexit. The hypothetical alternative – that the Scottish electorate votes for independence in a future referendum agreed by the Scottish and UK governments – would still leave EU membership years away.

Scotland's EU accession process could reasonably take four to five years (from its application after independence, not from an independence referendum). If the referendum were in held 2023 and the transition to statehood took three years, Scotland could join the EU at the start of the next decade.

In the years since the UK's 2016 referendum, Scotland has become widely recognised for its pro-EU sentiment. Nevertheless, the image of Scotland as a pro-EU bastion belies two essential truths.

First, Scotland has a remarkably poor European debate. Second, it faces significant challenges to sustaining meaningful links with the EU.

While perhaps surprising, the fact is that Scottish politics is largely disconnected from what happens in Brussels and member states.

The Scottish parliament holds no great debates on topical European questions. Most Scottish parliamentarians would struggle to identify the Brussels policy agenda, much less give an informed opinion based on the implications for Scotland or their ideological preferences.

Any debate on Scotland's engagement with the EU in the present, as part of the UK, is usually reduced to disputes over independence. The discussion on possible Scottish EU membership itself is superficial and repetitive. Both are underpinned by widespread lack of knowledge of how the EU functions.

Even without its poor EU debate, Scotland will struggle to maintain its EU connections. It is one part of a third country on the periphery of Europe. Scotland's degree of relevance and capacity for influence in the EU are much reduced – realities which the Scottish government usually glosses over in its rhetoric.

At this sombre second anniversary of the UK leaving the EU, Scottish politics must adapt to the reality that Brexit is over. Scotland needs better debates on EU relations today and possible EU membership in the future. In their absence, Scotland will continue to fade into the European political background.

Author bio

Anthony Salamone is managing director of European Merchants, a Scottish political analysis firm in Edinburgh.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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