Open Europe Blog

Aspiration or reality?

Alex Salmond has today claimed that an independent Scotland’s (iScotland) EU membership terms could “be finalised in 18 months” i.e by March 2016. There is an obvious political reason for wishing to play down the disruption caused by Scotland leaving the United Kingdom – Alex would not want to scare the Scottish horses – but even by the standards of political rhetoric this is quite a claim. Here is how it might or might not work.

Gordon Brown’s is the only 
Scottish signature on the EU Treaties

We have explained before that an independent Scotland would have to rejoin the EU. For although Scotland is within the EU it is the UK that is the signatory to the Treaties – above the most recent UK signatory (Gordon Brown’s) it clearly states “United Kingdom”. (If in doubt see the definitive legal opinion supplied to the Scottish Government by Former EU legal Counsel Jean-Claude Piris here). So it is clear that an iScotland would have to join  (not even re-join) the EU. So how long would that take?

Well a lot more than 18 months if history is a guide. We have set it out before here but in brief Scotland would need to apply for EU membership, be independent to apply and then complete 35 chapters of accession negotiations. Once the Commission has cleared Scotland through that phase, Scotland would still need the unanimous approval of all 28 EU states (inc rUK) and the European Parliament’s approval. This leaves a lot of unanswered questions. We have set some of them out here and again here but here is a recap of the more serious problems:

All in 18 Months?

  1. Gain an opt-out from the Euro + Schengen border controls: All EU accession negotiations are based on accepting the full treaties. In iScotland’s case Alex Salmond will come to the table asking for a UK-style opt-out from the euro, justice and policing laws and Schengen and the a share of the current UK rebate. These are all in the main body of the treaties. Without them iScotland would have passport controls on the English border, have to comply with rules governing the eurozone and be signed up to a growing body of EU criminal laws. Some EU members will object or want something in return.
  2. Avoid a Spanish veto: Spain (and a number of other states listed in our table here) have an ‘in principle’ objection to secession. As Scotland would require their agreement to join this is a real problem, while not unsolvable has the potential to complicate matters. 
  3. End negotiations with rUK: If Scotland were to opt to become independent it would enter into a long and fraught negotiation with rUK over the mountain of UK debt, assets, oil, currency, defence, passports and a whole range of other complicated issues. While this is going on the rUK will have want and be entitled to ensure that its negotiations with Scotland take precedence over iScotland’s negotiations with the EU.

So could this all be done in 18 months of the referendum? Well as with so much of the independence debate, the reality is that all we have at this point are lots of ‘known unknowns’ and it is fair to say that if Scotland does vote for independence there will be a large item in Alex Salmond’s inbox labelled EU membership…

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