While British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative party prepare to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the EU and Britain’s obligation to adhere to key European standards, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, the Scottish government is busy campaigning for its own independence and place within Europe. The Scottish National Party, the SNP, has promised a referendum on independence for Scotland from the UK in 2014, with a proposed date for secession in March 2016. The growing question for Scottish voters is ‘what will be Scotland’s position in the EU after 2016 ?’ The answer so far is unclear. Several European politicians have stated that an independent Scotland would have to reapply for membership of the bloc, with the UK government sharing this view.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland and Deputy Leader of the SNP, at a recent policy dialogue at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, set out her party’s and governments’ vision for independence. She began by stressing the differences between the Scottish and the rest of the UK on backing for EU membership, highlighting that support for EU membership in Scotland stands at around 60%, in the event of independence. “Scotland, unlike the UK government, is fully committed to remaining an active member of the EU. The current situation offers no certainty.” She and her party aim to capitalise on current fears of a British withdrawal from Europe : “Instead of leading the EU, the UK is in danger of sleepwalking towards the exit.” The Deputy Leader claimed that “people and politicians in Scotland recognise that EU membership is overwhelmingly in our national interest.” She further backed this notion by demonstrating that at the previous UK general election, the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party received less than 1% of the vote in Scotland.
Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, pictured here with First Minister Alex Salmond, says that an independent Scotland would be committed to an engaging and approachable relationship with the EU, in contrast to the « antagonistic and hostile » attitude of the current UK government.
In the busy, yet bland Brussels hotel conference room, she explained to the audience the SNP’s vision of “continuous membership” of the EU, which they aim to achieve through a “seamless transition” by immediately opening up membership negotiations with Brussels in the event of a yes vote in the independence referendum. Citing the example of Sweden, whose membership talks lasted just over a year, Sturgeon seems confident that the negotiating chapters could be opened and closed before March 2016 as, aside from existing UK opt-outs, Scotland already applies the EU’s acquis communitaire as part an of EU Member State.
Yet the question of whether Scotland would be entitled to the same opt-outs, on the Schengen border-free travel area and the Euro for example, were of contention for some members of the audience. George Lyon, Liberal Democrat MEP for Scotland, questioned whether the existing UK opt-outs would be ‘red lines’ in future membership talks, and whether the Scottish government would seek the same semi-detached relationship that the UK currently enjoys with the continent. The Deputy First Minister responded by claiming that Scotland would remain in a free-travel area with the UK and Ireland, stating that “nobody in the EU is arguing to create a border within the EU that doesn’t already exist,” and that the Scottish government is committed to remain with the Sterling currency after independence. However, the questions of opt-outs will certainly necessitate some greater legal clarity in the future, given that prospective Member States are required to sign up to the Euro and Schengen in their accession agreements.
She went on to comment that the UK government currently has an “antagonistic and hostile” relationship with Brussels, whereas Edinburgh would instead seek an engaging and approachable relationship in its dealings and membership of the EU. She claimed that if Scotland were to be denied or be delayed in its membership of the EU, then the “very founding principles of the EU would be traduced.” An argument which perhaps carries some weight ; after all, to deny or even strip existing EU citizens of their rights and privileges through administrative process would give flame to the notion of Brussels being both undemocratic and overly bureaucratic.
Sturgeon ended her speech by setting out that “after independence, we intend to remain part of the European family. And it is why Scottish membership of the European Union will be good for us, good for your individual nations, and good for Europe as a whole.” So it seems that ultimately, it will be up to the Scottish electorate, EU legal experts and the will of other European states to decide how close a member of the European family Scotland will be.
Nicola Sturgeon’s full speech can be read here