The Scottish government case for an independent Scotland in the EU

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The Scottish government case for an independent Scotland in the EU

November 29 2023, by Kirsty Hughes FRSE

The Scottish government has finally published its much delayed policy paper: “An Independent Scotland in the EU”.

There’s much serious, substantive analysis in the paper, which is welcome. But the underlying question for this paper is whether it can break through the current doldrums that the independence debate is languishing in. Joining the EU as a member state is not the only argument for independence. But the EU is surely a core part of the independence case and one that has the potential to sway undecided and soft ‘no’ voters.

Making the case

The new paper does make a pretty good and thorough case for being an EU member state. Its detailed explanation of the range of benefits of membership includes the single market, travel, employment, training, science, cooperation on climate change, on foreign policy and more. There’s plenty of material there to target different audiences whether the general public, students, business, and civil society. It also explains why the process of Scotland joining the EU is likely to be rapid – and start soon after independence. All this is positive. There needs to be a positive case about the how and why of joining the EU, rather than just a focus on the tricky parts. And this paper does do that.

And, in translating the paper into all the EU’s official languages, the Scottish government has also made a good pitch to the 27 member states. As such, the paper shows the EU audience that the Scottish government understands the EU accession process and isn’t asking to be a special case because of Brexit. It also lays out a whole set of positives that Scotland would bring to the EU (from renewable energy to universities to culture), while underlining how clearly Scotland supports the EU’s fundamental values.

Tricky issues

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote, there was a much livelier debate than now on the feasibility of an independent Scotland joining the EU rather than leaving it with the rest of the UK. Much of that debate, from the unionist side, focused onto challenges that Brexit itself raised for independence in the EU, compared to the situation in 2014 when the whole UK was inside the EU.

So, the question of a border between an independent Scotland in the EU and the rest of the UK being outside the EU was a hot topic. And the question of using the pound sterling, while applying to join the EU, even though the UK was no longer in the EU, added to the tricky issues around currency. Others pointed out an independent Scotland would not get an opt-out from the euro. Meanwhile, the tough 3% fiscal deficit target also drew the ire of unionist commentators.

The EU’s common fisheries policy was thrown into the mix too – seen as unattractive to much of Scotland’s fishing sector. And some brought up the possibility that an independent Scotland would sit outside the EU for a long time facing hard borders both to the rest of the UK and to the EU, creating substantial economic costs given Scotland trades much more with the rest of the UK than the EU. Others focused on what they saw as the irony of leaving one union only to join another.

The Scottish government’s new paper does pretty well on many but not all of these tricky issues.

Currency and the Euro, fisheries, two unions

So, on currency, the paper argues that the aim would be to broadly align the process of moving to a new Scottish currency with the EU accession process. This makes sense (and is something I have argued in the past too). If it might take four to five years to join the EU, after Scotland has become independent, then it’s reasonable to think a new currency could and would be introduced in that time period.

The paper also repeats the position set out a few months back by First Minister, Humza Yousaf, that Scotland would commit to join the euro, as all would-be member states must. But Scotland wouldn’t join the euro when it first joined the EU (it wouldn’t meet the criteria), and after that it wouldn’t be forced to join it (7 EU member states are currently not in the euro). This is welcome since it’s actually an accurate description of the process of joining the EU and the euro (and is much preferable to Nicola Sturgeon’s rather neuralgic refusal to contemplate that commitment a year ago).

The paper also has a go at explaining why, despite some challenges, rejoining the common fisheries policy would be preferable to being outside the EU. And it picks up the constitutional and democratic arguments around being back in the EU. On that, it gives a clear explanation of the differences between being in the UK union as a sub-state with a devolved parliament whose powers have been increasingly challenged since Brexit and being a full member state. There are sections on how smaller EU member states still benefit from having a voice and a seat at all the EU tables (and there are many) and how smaller states often network and form alliances to increase their influence.

The paper doesn’t engage with the arguments around joining the European Economic Area (EEA) instead of the EU. But in setting out the case for having a seat at the table, a voice, a vote, it effectively does show why being in the EU is a preferable outcome to being a rule-taker in the EEA.

Gaps in the argument

There are some significant gaps in the argument. And that shows where the Scottish government is not so confident in its case and/or wants to avoid negative headlines.

Fiscal deficit

The neuralgic question of how big a fiscal deficit an independent Scotland would have and how it would reduce it to the EU’s target of 3% is avoided almost entirely with a reference to the fact that the EU has suspended its Stability and Growth pact, in the face of the economic fall-out from Covid and the war in Ukraine. But while the EU is likely to take a more open approach to debt levels, the debate in Brussels does not look likely to change the 3% target as such – and this should be agreed before the end of this year (though it’s causing, unsurprisingly, tensions between member states with very different approaches). So that is a bit of a cop-out, and the question cannot be avoided forever. There is a reference in footnote 242 (!) to the fact that Croatia joined the EU without hitting the 3% target. Yet, that was its aim, just it was blown off course by the euro and wider financial crisis – but Croatia had to adjust rapidly as soon as it was in the EU. And burying the fiscal deficit target in footnotes won’t take it out of the debate.

EU-Scotland association agreement

More of a surprise is that the Scottish government chooses not to talk about the normal process of agreeing an Association Agreement with the EU, while talks on accession are under way. This is usual for candidates and provides a way to give candidates access to EU policies and markets over time, without which they would face a harder border to the EU until they joined. It’s worth quoting the relevant paragraph in full:

In order to ensure continuity of rights and obligations as well as legal certainty during the EU accession process, this Scottish Government would seek to agree transitional arrangements. These would provide certainty and facilitate the continuation of trading arrangements – in a broadly similar manner to those in place before independence – until Scotland joins the EU.”

What does this mean? It sounds obscure and what it is trying to do is get away from talking about the nature of the border between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK while Scotland is an EU candidate country. It seems to imply – if ‘broadly similar’ trading relations are to continue as before – that Scotland would remain part of the UK-EU trade deal rather than have an Association Agreement. But if that is the implication, the paper has chosen not to say that clearly and is trying to bury the issue in boring technocratic language. Staying part of the EU-UK hard border, trade and cooperation agreement would probably not be either possible or desirable (except perhaps for a few months while an Association Agreement was agreed).

If an independent Scotland wants to attract investment – domestic and foreign – as it moves as rapidly as possible towards the EU, it needs to align as fast as possible with EU laws and policies and lower trade barriers, not keep them there. The paper also brushes over the fact that the longer Scotland is outside the EU, the more divergence from EU laws there is likely to be (and the claim that the Scottish government is pro-actively aligning with EU laws in devolved areas does not stand scrutiny).

No running from border issues

Other border issues are likewise largely avoided. There is a useful discussion of how some border bureaucracy and trade issues could be reduced and an acknowledgement that Scotland’s services trade with the rest of the UK is the biggest issue. But the fact that Scotland currently trades three times more with the rest of UK than with the EU is not dealt with directly. But it’s a big issue that won’t go away. There is a section on how Ireland’s trade over time shifted towards the EU and away from the UK. That is all helpful to know and relevant to the eventual direction of travel.

But making the case for independence means explaining what could or would happen during the transitional years of the first decade especially.  So that means not only talking about things that might ease border frictions, and the long run benefits of being in the EU, but also facing up to the costs of there being an EU border between Scotland and England and Wales.

On free movement of people, the paper makes the same statement as in earlier Scottish government papers. Certainly, there are potential ‘win win’ benefits to be had from having free movement of people both as a member state in the EU and as part of the Common Travel Area with Ireland and the UK. But the presumption that there will be no new passport or identity checks at the Scotland-England border is just that – a presumption. There could, instead, be checks just as there at the Irish Sea (and air) border between Britain and the island of Ireland.

Where now for the independence debate?

Are we now at the start of a renewed, energised debate about independence in the EU? If we are, then this paper makes a substantial contribution to that from clearly explaining all the benefits of being in the EU to a relatively short but decent explanation of the accession process. A renewed debate will not be able to avoid the tricky issues that come up in part due to Brexit, in part due to the fact of being an independent state. This paper has tackled some of those tricky issues head on, but others it has chosen to swerve and avoid.

The challenge, of course, is that the independence debate is currently in the doldrums. There’s more focus on internal process debates – how to overcome the UK government refusal to allow another referendum – and the need for a new strategy (whatever that means or might be). There’s much less focus on the substantive issues and persuading the don’t knows and soft ‘nos’ to back independence. Yet getting support for independence substantially over 50%, and keeping it there, is the most obvious way not only to create real momentum towards independence but to change the political and process dynamics around it.

Earlier papers in the ‘new Scotland’ series have fallen rather into a vacuum with little follow up or momentum. Whether there is any stronger, livelier strategy for the independence in the EU paper, we will see – as we head towards a general election year. There would need to be speeches, articles, events, soundbites, clear accessible summaries on key issues and more. There would need to be real engagement by the SNP’s politicians both at Holyrood and Westminster. And fine if some want to argue over whether there should be a referendum on joining the EU after accession talks are done (that would be usual) or even before talks start (not usual), or if some want to argue why being a rule-taker in the EEA is preferable. The overarching need is to get back the momentum of a few years ago on the goal of being back in the EU.

The unionist side seems to have decided for now that there’s no need to engage with substantive issues, much easier simply to deride any statements or papers or arguments on independence as irrelevant in the face of the cost-of-living crisis. But that, then, is all the more reason why this – and the other – Scottish government papers need a strong communications strategy to get the arguments out there, whether opponents want to engage or not.

If the goal is independence in the EU, then the time to make that case is now.

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Scotland-Europe Initiative

This Initiative will examine Scotland’s and the UK’s relations with Europe and the effects of Brexit on our daily life by exploring public policy issues such as trade and investment, energy policy, and migration.

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Dr Kirsty Hughes FRSE was the founder and director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations from 2017-2021. A leading expert on European politics and public policy, she has worked at several European think tanks, including as European Director at Chatham House, and as a Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe and the Centre for European Policy Studies. She was also a senior political adviser in the European Commission.

This article was first published in the author’s EU and Scotland Newsletter on Substack.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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