Scotland could become the EU's next great problem

2 March 2021

8:54 PM

2 March 2021

8:54 PM

It is generally acknowledged, even by diehard Remainers, that the European Union’s handling of Cameron’s attempted renegotiation of the UK’s membership, as well as the EU’s subsequent interventions leading up to the 2016 referendum, was mishandled. It turned out they only added fuel to the Eurosceptic fire by appearing more as a foreign power attempting to interfere in British affairs rather than as a club of which the UK was an equal member.

With Scottish independence seemingly the next constitutional tussle for the United Kingdom, with another referendum very possibly hovering into view, how should the EU be involved in this debate, if at all?

A newly independent Scotland would have huge implications for the EU. For a start, it would be a test of some members’ patience with their own secession issues, notably Spain’s Catalan problem but also to a lesser extent the Flemish independence movement, Moravia in the Czech Republic and Basque separatism on the French and Spanish border (to name just a small handful).

To be seen as in any way egging on part of a country to split off from the rest of its whole would go directly against the wishes of several member states — not to mention the very notion of sovereign self-determination within nation states. Imagine what a seemingly EU-endorsed vote for Scottish independence would do to the hundreds of separatist movements across the continent. Cameron’s spin doctor Craig Oliver once spoke of ‘unleashing demons’ with the Brexit vote — if the EU overtly backed Scottish secession, they would unleash the devil himself.

But should Scotland choose independence on its own, there are competing considerations for the EU. On the one hand, it would serve as a punishment for Brexit and a further warning to other member states not to leave the EU. Your country may literally fall to pieces, would be the message.

On the other hand, Scottish independence would create a raft of practical headaches. As much as the Northern Ireland protocol has its negatives for everyone involved, at least it solves the customs union problem from a functional perspective if nothing else. It is difficult to see how you would avoid a hard border between Scotland and England if Scotland joined the EU. Does the EU really want two vulnerable boundaries to their customs union in the British Isles alone? This second time around, on a land border almost a hundred miles long that has never had any modern infrastructure along it, ever?

The EU has a duty to be brutally honest about how it would treat an independent Scotland. They need to lay out their position on the subject as plainly as they can and in as much detail as possible but without being seen to endorse one side or other. If a second independence referendum is called in Scotland, the European Union has a moral obligation to do this.

For instance, if a newly separated Scotland is to be admitted relatively quickly to the EU, this needs to be made clear. It would be one of the major considerations for how many Scottish voters would land in such a referendum. But if accession might take years or even decades to see through, Scottish voters need to know that as well. The more evangelical players in Brussels may want to tell Scots that the process would be quick and near-painless, that the EU would welcome Scotland back with open arms after she was dragged from the bloc against her will. That would be almost as dangerous as an outright endorsement of independence.

There are some painful questions that cannot be avoided when it comes to Scottish accession. Would the newly formed nation have to accept the Euro as a price of joining? If so, over what timeframe? Does Scotland meet the financial requirements for admittance to the EU? Would Scotland inherit the same opt-outs and privileges as the now-departed United Kingdom or would it have to negotiate these terms anew? Would there indeed be a land border between Scotland and England, and what obligations would Holyrood have in this department? The European Union would really need to lay out answers to all of these questions and more if there was another Scottish referendum.

Brussels must play the straightest bat it can when it comes to Scottish independence. Lay out as honestly as possible how they would handle a newly independent Scotland and in particular the process of Scotland’s joining the bloc.

Other than that, the EU should stay completely out of the debate. Ignore any SNP entreaties to talk anything up, remembering that unlike during the Brexit referendum debate, the EU can both gain and lose from independence. The risks of being seen to interfere could be catastrophic.

How would the SNP respond to such arm’s length treatment of the independence debate by their beloved EU? Probably not all that well. Yet they too should realise that it is for the best if independence were to come with as few surprises as possible.

If the road back to the EU is going to be long and difficult and Scots still vote for independence, at least due diligence would have been done. Surely the SNP would want the majority of the Scottish public to have no regrets about leaving the Union after it had been done. The Faustian bargain involved in that is too much to bear thinking about.

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