Could an independent Scotland rejoin the EU?

A bumpy ride through indyref2, a divorce deal with London and an application to Brussels could take ten years

The Scottish Saltire and EU flag fly side by side in Edinburgh
(Image credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

With Nicola Sturgeon pushing ahead with plans to hold a second Scottish independence referendum before the end of the next year, talk has once again turned to the possibility of Scotland rejoining the EU.

While the constitutional and administrative issues of Scottish independence would make Brexit seem straightforward, it would also raise questions about whether Scotland would, and could, rejoin the EU as an newly independent member state.

The road map to rejoining

The path to membership would have to pass through several stages before the prospect of Scotland as an EU member could become a reality.

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While announcing a timetable to hold a new independence referendum, the SNP has been less clear on a timeframe to rejoin the EU, although the Institute for Government think tank claims the route back to Brussels could take up to ten years.

“Other constitutional experts point to a similar timeframe,” said The Independent. However, it would be a “long and bumpy ride – through indyref2, a divorce deal with London and an application to Brussels”.

Despite calls to fast track accession for Scotland, the legal process for joining the EU as set out in Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), also known as the Copenhagen criteria, “does make it clear that Scotland would not be able to formally submit an application for membership to the council until it had become an independent European state, meaning that the process could start only once Scotland had finalised its secession from the UK”, said Kelly Shuttleworth on the constitutional website Verfassungsblog.

If the UK’s Brexit divorce from the EU is any guide, an optimistic estimate would be for Scotland’s separation from the UK to be settled within two to three years, with an application to join the EU taking four to five years after that.

Dr Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER), said a successful bid for EU membership in four to five years is realistic, although this would represent a “best case scenario”, said The Independent.

Once it had successfully applied, Scotland would then have to decide whether to hold a final referendum on membership.

Currently, there are mixed messages from leading SNP figures, with Sturgeon stating she does not think a vote on EU membership would be necessary, given that 62% of Scots voted against Brexit in 2016. However, it has become accepted practice for accession states to hold a referendum so there would be pressure to carry on this tradition, which would also provide added legitimacy.

The obstacles

The EU’s Copenhagen criteria demand that prospective members have a stable democracy, a functioning market economy and are willing to sign up to the basic aims of the EU.

However, “despite its unique history, it would have to follow the normal path to EU accession”, said Anthony Salamone in a blog for LSE, citing opposition to the euro and fisheries as potential flashpoints in any negotiations with Brussels.

Leaving the UK

First up, is the very large obstacle of actually leaving the United Kingdom. The Westminster government is against a referendum taking place and polls suggest there is not overwhelming support for independence north of the border.

Euro

Should the SNP get its way, the currency question in particular, “which caused the Yes side such big problems during the 2014 referendum, seems to freak people out”, said The Independent. It cited a 2020 YouGov poll that found most Scots want to keep using the pound, with only 18% in favour of switching to the euro.

“An awful lot of persuasion will be required to soften Scots up on the idea,” said the news site.

Deficit reduction

“Another area which might be of major concern though is public finances,” said Euronews.

New EU members are expected to work towards cutting budget deficits to 3% or less so “an independent Scotland could risk beginning its new life with a much higher deficit than EU rules normally allow”, said the site.

Free movement

Another contentious area would be free movement of people from the rest of the EU. Salamone said the Scottish government “would probably seek a special arrangement on the Schengen Area in order to maintain the Common Travel Area between Ireland, Scotland and [the rest of the] UK.

“In the post-Brexit context, it is difficult to imagine the EU granting a treaty-level opt-out, but perhaps a model of deferred participation could be agreed,” he added.

Border with England

One major difference between the last independence referendum and a future one would be the thorny issue of a hard border between Scotland and England, with one country inside the EU and the other outside.

As the recent experience over the Northern Ireland Protocol has shown, the EU sees maintaining the integrity of its single market as a red line it will not cross, even if it means dividing communities and putting up barriers to trade between member and non-member states.

“Regarding the Scottish context then, the EU would most likely look to apply similar border arrangements seen on the Slovenian – Croatian border,” said Darryn Nyatanga, in another LSE blog. “This would entail the need for new infrastructures on the land border between Scotland and the rest of the UK, to ensure that checks are carried out on goods and to protect against illegal activities such as smuggling.”

Opposition from other EU member states

Euronews said on the European side, “any agreement between Edinburgh and Brussels would require the blessing of all member states, with some countries, particularly Spain, having their own separatist problems to consider”.

However, Hughes told the news site that “Spain would be fine about [a] membership application as long as the independence process had been legal and constitutional”.

“If London isn’t internationally recognised in Scotland and if Scotland is somehow leaving the UK without a negotiated divorce, then that will be very messy indeed,” she said.

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