Experts split on Scotland’s future in EU


CommonSpace spoke to four constitutional experts and found opinion divided on Scotland’s future in the EU

CALLS HAVE been made this morning for Scotland to pursue its own EU membership in the face of a UK ‘Brexit’, but there is no clear agreement on whether this would be possible. 

In the wake of the UK-wide vote to leave the EU, several groups have called for Scotland to pursue its own membership of the EU. German MEP Manfred Weber told the Financial Times that Scotland and Northern Ireland could remain in the EU, saying “those who want to stay are welcome”. 

Pro-independence campaign group Business for Scotland this morning issued a statement calling on the Scottish Government to “immediately begin talks with the EU for Sotland to remain a member, even though the rest of the UK may exit”. Similarly, the Scottish Green Party began a campaign to “keep every option open” to protect Scots’ EU citizenship rights. 

Since no major member state has left the EU previously, there is little clear understanding of what Scotland’s options are or even how the UK’s secession will play out. CommonSpace spoke to experts and commentators in constitutional affairs, and found opinion divided on the prospect of Scottish accession.

Rosalind Cavanagh, post-doctoral researcher at Radboud University, Netherlands

As an academic of political science and expert on the EU, it’s very unclear to me what could happen next. When the independence referendum was happening you had comments from the European Commission saying that an independent Scotland couldn’t be in the EU – which was due to their worries about Catalonia and the Basque countries also pursuing independence. 

Now, though, it may be in the EU’s interests to allow Scotland to join – in that respect things have really changed. None of what anyone was saying during the independence referendum was set in stone – these things are very unclear. 

Even though Clause 50 exists in the EU treaties, very few people have studied it and it’s almost impossible to know how any legislation would play out in practice. 

The fact that the UK constitution isn’t written means there’s scope for a Denmark-style arrangement. You have Sturgeon saying Boris Johnson is a terrifying prospect, and Ruth Davidson calling him a liar on TV – I do wonder if Scottish political parties couldn’t form a coalition to push for EU membership. The current Scottish government has a very strong democratic mandate to do that. 

Whether they have a clear constitutional position i don’t know – and perhaps no one does. But they do have that mandate and this all raises very awkward questions of legitimacy. 

Professor Michael Keating, Chair in Scottish Politics at the University of Aberdeen

For Scotland to remain in the EU with the UK outside the EU, that would be very different indeed – Greenland was a very small place. At some point there has to be another independence referendum.

The European Council, which is the body that will make this decision, only talks to national governments.  There could be formal talks about what would happen if Scotland became independent, but the critical thing is that Scotland would have to be an independent state. 

Scottish independence is now more likely, but it depends on the deal the UK makes with the EU. I don’t think there will be a deal to be in the single market, but if there was, that would make it less important for Scotland to be independent.

The important thing for the Scottish Government is to keep an open border with England and EU – and that depends on what border arrangement the UK ends up with. 

Adam Ramsay, co-editor of openDemocracy UK 

Cameron said in his speech that devolved administrations should be included in negotiations. It’s not yet clear what he meant, but it’s perfectly reasonable for scotland to say that in 1707, we chose to go into a union with England and Wales, and in 2014 we chose to ratify that union; in 1975 we chose to join the European Community and in 2016, we voted overwhelmingly to ratify that choice.

It’s possible that the SNP will pursue this route, if it’s plausible. A senior legal expert, Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, thinks it’s possible, and the Danish situation provides a different but clear precedent.

From the EU’s perspective there’s two ways of seeing it. This is a huge blow to the EU – the first time a major member has left. That blow could be modified if Scotland and Northern Ireland decided to stay. If you’re a European official, you’re looking at Marine le Pen is gaining ground in the French presidential election, promising a French referendum. So the EU will be looking for any positive message, and the fact that parts of the UK want to stay is surely one. 

Also, if they think that if they don’t offer [Scottish membership], there will be a second independence referendum. If that’s the choice the UK is presented with, there’s a possibility they will choose Scottish EU accession. 

Dr Toni Haastrup, lecturer in International Security at the University of Kent

The main focus for Brussels right now is what they do about the UK. They’re not going to start a negotiation with Scotland because that process takes years, and right now leaders of member states are in the fight of their lives trying to save the EU. 

They’ll be very much focused on figuring out what to do with the UK, rather than negotiating with Northern Ireland or considering Scottish accession. 

The UK will maybe prefer that the whole process of withdrawing is slower, but some member states might just want it to be over. The Euro has fallen, countries are in jeopardy. They’ll be very focused on creating stability. 

Also, no country in the EU will want to be part of breaking up another country. The EU is a project of cooperation – so it will only be in the situation of another independence referendum, which I don’t see coming any time soon. 

Scotland can’t unanimously organise a binding referendum. The main focus of all four nations in the UK is that the country is stable, whatever that might look like. 

Picture courtesy of Christopher Elison

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