As Scotland reboots its independence campaign, the European situation has changed in major respects since 2014. Here are some of the factors that underlie the Yes movement’s renewed confidence over EU membership.
#1 If Scotland had voted ‘Yes; in 2014, we would still be in the EU today
Rewind to 2014. The Spanish Foreign Minister at the time, commented that as long as Scotland became independent by a legal process, Spain would have ‘nothing to say’ about that. But despite this, the media was full of headlines suggesting it might be difficult or take a long time for Scotland to get back in - EU Commission President Manuel Barroso even intervened in the campaign, giving a controversial interview on the Andrew Marr show. His words were interpreted to create a slew of negative headlines.
In fact, had there been a Yes’ vote in 2014, even if there had been some kind of paperwork trail to go through, an independent Scotland would be in the European Union today. The rest of the UK, if it wanted to leave, would have had to negotiate a protocol with Scotland of the kind that applies to Northern Ireland since Brexit.
People who voted ‘No’ in 2014 have every right to feel that they were misled by the Better Together campaign’s claims that independence would lead to leaving the EU and voting No would secure our membership. A leaflet sent to every home in Scotland on the benefits of being in the UK featured a picture of the EU flag and the words:
"An Influential Voice in Important Places... As one of the EU’s ‘big four’ nations, the UK is more able to protect Scottish interests. "
#2 Casting doubt on Scotland’s EU membership without evidence won’t fly
Most people didn’t question what they read and heard - the Better Together technique was not to set out a strong case, but just to cast doubt, and feed uncertainty. So Better Together continually suggested that Scotland might not be allowed to join; or that it would have to join a “queue” for membership - even though there isn’t a queue, it is done on a case by case basis. Countries such as Finland and Sweden completed the process in less than three years.
For more than a year in the run-up to the independence referendum, Scots were subjected to a torrent of headlines, reports, columns, TV debates that suggested Scotland’s EU membership could be rejected, a suggestion without much foundation in fact. Few readers got to the end of these stories, where the comment from the independence side was buried.
“‘Impossible’ for Scotland to join EU’” shouted the Scotsman’s banner headline; “Separate Scotland Might Not Get Into EU, warns Barroso” - the Times; “Independent Scotland would find it extremely difficult to join EU” - the Guardian.
History has revealed this to be Unionist propaganda - the real risk to Scotland’s EU membership was actually from staying in the UK. That was underplayed at the time, although some commentators did point it out. But those who suggested this was a possibility in TV debates were greeted with derision. The same tactic is unlikely to work a second time.
#3 The UK is no longer a member of the EU and has little influence
The most significant change of circumstances today is that the UK is no longer an EU member. The backdrop to the previous referendum was an EU that was keen to retain Britain at the top table. Westminster’s envoys were in constant communication with Brussels. They were able to pressure EU officials and members to get them to intervene in the 2014 campaign.
The situation is very different now. The UK Government is not on good terms with the EU. The next prospective Prime Minister Liz Truss has already made threats to unilaterally tear up the Northern Irish protocol, causing frustration in Brussels.
In these circumstances, the UK Government would find it difficult to get any EU member country or any senior EU official to do its bidding in terms of threatening Scotland by saying that it would not be allowed to join the EU as an independent country.
#4 Senior EU figures say the EU would “enthusiastically” welcome Scotland after independence.
VP of the Green group in the European Parliament, German MEP Terry Reintke visited Scotland earlier this month to participate in discussions about Scotland’s continued cooperation with the EU. She said:
“If Scotland were to become an independent country, an accession procedure to the European Union would be much easier – as Scotland had previously applied the full acquis [EU statues book] already.”
Sylvie Bermann, one of France’s leading diplomats, and the former ambassador to the UK said that the EU would welcome the accession of an independent Scotland.
“The situation has changed because there’s been Brexit…Probably there would be some negotiation, but [Scotland joining the EU] would be good for Europe. There’s no reason why if there’s this referendum which is accepted that we shouldn’t want to have Scotland – we’ll be very happy.”
Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre in Brussels, said “the mood on the EU side is rather positive” and suggested an independent Scotland might be able to conclude membership negotiations in “two to three years” – similar to Finland in the mid-1990s. Many leading MEPs from every corner of Europe have expressed support and said the process of accession would be smooth.
#5 The Northern Ireland protocol could be a template for independent Scotland
Because Ireland is now in the EU and Northern Ireland is not, the UK and Ireland agreed on the Northern Irish protocol. This is supported by governments in Washington, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast. The First Minister Elect of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill is on a trip to Washington meeting US Government representatives, and gave a hard-hitting interview to CNN, defending the protocol. She said:
"Who wouldn't want the access that we now have to both markets, to the EU and the British markets?"
The protocol has been adjusted in various ways, but it is working for the Northern Irish economy which is growing faster than the UK. While Scotland suffers all the harms and blocks of Brexit, Northern Ireland can trade freely with the EU and also, for the most part, with the UK.
All of the effort that has gone into streamlining border checks for goods traded across the EU’s border with the UK demonstrate how this could effectively happen with Scotland. It may be that the real reason that the UK government wants to tear it up is not to pander to the Democratic Unionist Party but to prevent the protocol showing that independence for Scotland as with the protocol in Northern Ireland could result in relatively few border checks, and those for goods only, not for people. Despite Brexit, both Northern Ireland and Ireland continue to be part of the Common Travel Zone with the UK.
Scotland was a member of the EU for more than four decades. Most of its laws are compatible with EU statute; it shares the values of rule of law, support for human rights and cooperation. Every single council area in Scotland voted to remain in the EU - it was a strong and unified voice. Despite that, the UK decided to pursue the hard Brexit sought by a factional government.
Scotland can be confident that returning to EU membership will be straightforward and should take less than three years. The process of accession could begin while Scotland is still negotiating the detail of its independence from the UK Government.