23rd Oct 2016

Scottish leaders under pressure on EU status

  • There is confusion over whether an independent Scotland would remain in the EU. (Photo: The Laird of Oldham)

The Scottish government is facing renewed pressure to reveal legal advice on whether it would remain in the EU if the country votes to leave the United Kingdom.

An urgent hearing of the Court of Session in Edinburgh will take place on Thursday (20 September), with Scotland's information commissioner Rosemary Agnew demanding the urgent two-day meeting to confirm that the ruling nationalist administration should release any legal advice on EU membership prospects.

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The question of Scotland's EU membership is vital to the nationalists who are keen to retain unfettered access to the single market as well as an opt-out from joining the euro.

The government has consistently argued that Scotland's EU status would not be affected by independence.

However, that assumption was thrown into doubt last week by the head of the European Commission.

In his State of the Union speech in the European Parliament, Jose Barroso told MEPs that break-away countries would have to make new applications to join the EU. "A new state, if it wants to join the EU, has to apply to become a member of the EU, like any state," he said.

Under EU accession rules, the approval of all member states is required for a country to join the 27-country bloc.

The question of whether legal advice exists on Scotland's EU status was triggered by a freedom of information request made by Scottish opposition MEP Catherine Stihler in 2011 demanding its publication.

Commenting on Barroso's speech, she warned that "Scotland will not automatically assume the many rights of the UK" and said the country's EU membership would take "long, detailed negotiations with a great many bodies and institutions."

In July, Scotland's information commissioner Rosemary Agnew ruled that the government should publish any legal advice on the issue, stating that the advice would improve public understanding in the debate on independence.]

She noted that disclosure would "inform the public in making their choice in a referendum, and in participating in the referendum debate."

However, the government has continued to stand firm, appealing the case and citing provisions in freedom of information law which allow public authorities to withhold information if it deems it to be against the public interest.

Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, who has also claimed that revealing legal advice would breach a ministerial code, insists that the legal implications will be covered in a white paper on Scottish independence expected to be published in November 2013, ahead of a planned referendum on independence in 2014.

The case has potential implications for Catalonia in Spain and for other regions in Europe calling for independence.

Last week, Catalonian regional leader, Artur Mas, warned the European Commission to prepare for a series of breakaway EU states, claiming that the region, which already has semi-autonomous status, would fare better if it had control over its tax and spending policy.

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