Tuesday

9th Aug 2022

Brexit vote reignites Scottish independence campaign

One of the questions at stake in Scotland’s independence bid in 2014 was whether a Scottish state would keep its EU membership if it seceded from the UK.

The issue was never really settled and fell into oblivion when Scots voted to stay in the UK.

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But it’s now back on the table because Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU in last week's referendum even though the UK as a whole voted to leave.

Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has vowed to keep her nation in the EU, but she admits it is not clear how this would happen.

“It has never happened before that an EU country tried to extricate itself from the EU, but nations within that state wanted to stay in,” she told BBC on Sunday (26 June).

Her cabinet will request discussions with EU institutions and other member states by way of exploring alternatives. Sturgeon has also appointed a panel of experts to advise the government on its options.

Old talks

Back in 2014, the Scottish government argued it could maintain EU membership if member states agreed to amending the treaties instead of forcing an independent Scotland to start the accession process from scratch.

Westminster meanwhile argued that a vote to leave the UK would also place Scotland outside the EU. Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission’s president at that time, agreed and warned that an independent Scotland would find it “difficult, if not impossible” to ever join the club again.

Spain, struggling with own independence-minded regions, was likely to veto any breakaway states from trying, he argued.

Sturgeon maintained on Sunday that Scotland shouldn't be dragged out of the EU even for a moment. She argued it should be possible to ensure that Scotland could keep its EU membership this time, because of Britain's bid to leave the EU.

She said there were “no rules, no precedents” to govern the UK's departure from the EU.

“What will happen from here on in is a process of negotiations,” she said.

The Scottish government's proposal received a cautious welcome from Brussels. A European Commission spokesman said president Jean-Claude Juncker had an open door policy and would meet Scottish representatives.

Liberal group leader Guy Verhofstadt said he would be happy to discuss with Nicola Sturgeon when she came to Brussels, adding it it was wrong that Scotland might be taken out of EU, when it voted to stay.

New context

It's likely, however, that the discussion will look a lot like the one of 2014.

The Scottish independence vote was called a "once in a generation" event by former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond.

The party nonetheless opened up for another vote last autumn, updating its manifesto with a pledge to give Scotland's parliament Holyrood the right to launch another referendum if there was evidence that a majority of Scots favour independence - or in case of significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, “such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will”.

The SNP won Scottish elections in May on the basis of this programme. Sturgeon said on Sunday it was likely that Scotland could only stay a member of the EU if it becomes an independent state.

Four polls showed that support for independence surged amid the chaos that followed Thursday’s vote, and more Scots now wanted to leave the UK than to remain.

But one of the snapshots also showed that only 42 percent of Scots wanted to vote on the matter at all, with 45 percent against and 13 percent undecided.

The power to call a referendum belongs to Westminster, not Holyrood. Boris Johnson, poised to become Britain’s next prime minister, remarked on Sunday that he did not detect "any real appetite" for another Scottish independence referendum for the moment.

Scots overwhelmingly backed EU membership in Thursday's referendum, with 62 percent wanting to stay. But Scotland had a slightly lower EU referendum turnout than the rest of the UK, indicating that voters maybe didn’t feel as strongly about Europe as the first minister argued.

Sturgeon already faced difficult questions on Scotland’s currency and borders with England in case of Scottish independence and EU bid.

The UK government's Scotland secretary, David Mundell, a Tory, said there would be another independence referendum “if that's what the people of Scotland wanted”. But SNP could face a backlash by pushing the issue under the current situation and its behaviour added to uncertainty, he argued.

“I think a lot of people in Scotland will have taken a step back and think this is just opportunism in terms of trying to exploit a situation of uncertainty to push the independence agenda,” Mundell added.

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