Brussels Behind the Scenes: Scotland’s Play

Brussels Behind the Scenes: Scotland’s Play

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
Weekly analysis and untold stories
With SAM MORGAN

Read more:

Scotland’s Play

Enlarging the EU was the talk of the town this week, as Ukraine and Moldova’s membership bids secured important endorsements. But they are not the only countries thinking about a future in Brussels. One actually used to be a member and was banished against its wishes.

Ukraine and Moldova should be given EU candidate status, according to the European Commission, and government leaders will decide whether they agree with that assessment at a big summit next week.

Georgia too has been given homework, while existing enlargement hopefuls like Albania, Montenegro and Serbia are all at different stages of meeting the entry requirements. What the future holds for all these countries is rather difficult to predict.

So instead let us consider the entirely hypothetical but far-from-implausible scenario that the EU will receive yet another membership application within the next few years from an auld friend: Scotland.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


 

An independent Scotland would rejoin the EU in a heartbeat. As the prospect of a UK breakup becomes slightly less unthinkable, this poses a potential headache for Brussels leaders already struggling to balance the hopes and dreams of all the prospective members.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced this week that if her government gets the necessary legal approval, Scotland will vote again on whether to become an independent country in October 2023.

The 2014 referendum was billed as a ‘once in a generation’ vote and Scots ultimately chose to remain a part of the United Kingdom, after 55% voted against the independence option. But ‘once in a generation’ does not hold much water these days.

Brexit is of course the prevailing factor here. Pro-independence Scots now – perhaps rightfully – argue that the original terms of the deal that voters were offered are void, as the reward for staying in the UK included de facto EU membership.

Scotland voted to stay in the EU by a wide margin, unlike England – where 53% voted to leave – and Wales, where 52% chose Brexit, largely as a way to give then-PM David Cameron a bloody nose.

Whether Sturgeon can engineer another legitimate referendum within her timeframe is debatable. Boris Johnson’s Tories insist that the question has already been asked and does not need to be asked again.

Scotland’s pro-indy campaigners will want to avoid accusations of holding an illegal vote. Catalonia is the most obvious example of how not to organise a referendum, given the legal chaos that was unleashed by the last ballot.

Sturgeon will reportedly outline options soon on how this can be achieved. Questions about currency, trade, business and EU membership will also be addressed by a number of policy papers.

Several factors will influence the upcoming debate, including: how the UK government deals with the Northern Ireland Protocol mess; and how public opinion treats the ongoing migration discourse.

Recent polls suggest that a rerun referendum on Scottish independence would be a tight affair. Yet a worsening cost of living crisis and further de-Europeanisation efforts by Westminster may tilt the scales decisively toward ‘leave’.

Rejoining the EU is certain to feature heavily in any campaign but this too will be far from straightforward.

Back of the queue?

General consensus suggests that Scotland would meet the EU’s technical criteria rather easily, given that it was a part of the Union for more than 40 years. Its legal system and other norms are likely largely in line with the Copenhagen membership requirements.

But EU enlargement is now a complex beast and is a Gordian Knot of vested and national interests, international politicking and economic concerns. Ukraine’s recent application has brought the most complex part of EU politics back into the limelight.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said yesterday that all three new applicants have their EU destinies in their own hands. But this is only partly true.

As Albania and North Macedonia – whose progress has been blocked by internal politics elsewhere – can attest, if your timing is not right and you are overtaken by geopolitical events, your applications can completely lose momentum.

Scotland too might fall victim to factors outside of its control. If there is even a whiff of irregularity about its independence process, it could trigger vetoes among the existing EU members.

Spain is an obvious candidate for this, given its government’s Catalonia issues. Others like Romania, which for example does not recognise Kosovo, might also view an application unfavourably. Central and Eastern European countries might also take offence that Scotland would essentially jump the queue to get back in.

The membership eco-system may also have changed by the time an independent Scotland makes its EU bid.

Emmanuel Macron has attempted to mould the debate along lines of his choosing by suggesting that a new political community could be set up for prospective candidates. It would offer a taste of EU membership and help prepare members for full accession.

Countries already in the queue are not overly keen on this idea as they see it as an attempt to replace membership with a separate, less lucrative club. Council President Charles Michel insists this is not the case but there is likely a sliver of truth to it.

Would Scotland be required to sit in this waiting room for an indefinite period of time before getting full-fat EU membership? Would countries that are struggling against the tide to implement reforms perceive quick accession as queue-jumping?

Von der Leyen was adamant during yesterday’s announcement that the entire enlargement process remains a merit-based undertaking. But it is far more complex than that and will face numerous stress tests in the coming years.

The first will be on 23 June at the Council summit, where the green light for Ukraine and Moldova’s candidate status is still far from a certainty.

 

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


Latest News

Copyright © 2021 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.