It is probably not surprising that during Brexit week that the most frequently asked questions on the site relates to Scotland’s membership of the EU. Would Scotland be a member of the EU? Could it become a member of the EU? and would there be a referendum on joining the EU in an independent Scotland?
The first point to observe is that the UK will leave the EU on Friday, January 31st 2020. Therefore, when Scotland becomes independent it will not be a member of the EU. This is a significant change to the situation in 2014, when the UK was still a member of the EU and so was Scotland, by virtue of being part of the UK.
In the 2016 EU referendum, Scotland voted Remain by a margin of 62% to 38%. Since the Brexit vote, the political divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK has widened significantly. This is demonstrated clearly by the fact that in the 2019 General Election, the SNP, who are avidly pro-EU, won 80% of the seats available in Scotland. Meanwhile, an avidly anti-EU Conservative majority formed in England, and therefore, in the UK as a whole. More recently, a poll for YouGov published on 28th January 2020 asked: “Was Britain Right/Wrong to vote to leave EU?”. When the ‘Don’t Knows’ are removed, 46% of UK voters thought that it was not a mistake, whereas 54% thought it was a mistake. Looking at regional subsamples, we can see that some areas, such as the South of England, Midlands and Wales, still marginally support Brexit. However, in Scotland, 73% thought Brexit was a mistake. Thus, Scotland is clearly the most EU supportive part of the UK.
So would an independent Scotland be a member of the EU?
That would be a decision for the people of an independent Scotland and the Government of Scotland. However, the significant number of people in Scotland that support EU membership would probably hold sway, and if there was a referendum on re-joining the EU, a sizeable mandate would be highly probable.
That said there is a simpler answer. The SNP, who currently run the Scottish Government, would be the political leaders in any independence referendum in the next few years and have a policy of Scotland being an independent nation within the EU. This is also backed by the other main pro-independence party the Scottish Green Party. This means that any vote to become independent would be predicated on a mandate to rejoin the EU.
Could Scotland rejoin the EU after Independence?
There is absolutely no technical reason why Scotland could not rejoin the EU. Some politicians say that Scotland would have to use the Euro. However, that is not the case, as we explained last week. Others say that Scotland’s deficit is too high. There are two clear misunderstandings at play here. First of all, there is no strict deficit requirement for being an EU member. The target of a 3% deficit refers to being part of the Euro Currency Zone, and that, therefore, does not apply.
The second misunderstanding is that no one actually knows what the deficit or surplus in an independent Scotland would be. We will answer the question "will an independent Scotland have a deficit?” in a future FAQ article.
In 2014, claims were made that Scotland couldn’t join the EU if it became independent and this was an important factor in the No Campaign win. Back then, the UK was a member of the EU and the EU could not make statements that interfered with the internal politics of member states. After the Brexit vote, many individual MEPs spoke out about an independent Scotland’s ability to rejoin the EU and as MEPs in the European Parliament voted to accept the Withdrawal Agreement, agreed with the UK Government, they held hands and poignantly sang the Scottish Song Auld Lang Syne (Burns).
A large group of MEPs, largely from the European Green Alliance, also gathered after the vote to say that they would leave a light on for Scotland to find it’s way back (something it can only do now after independence). Indeed, as far back as 2017, a group of 50 politicians from across Europe signed a letter stating that an independent Scotland would be “most welcome” as a full member of the European Union. Finally, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, stated that he felt that “It's wrong that Scotland might be taken out of EU, when it voted to stay and that he was happy to discuss with the Scottish FM”.
Verhofstadt, the former Belgium Prime Minister, also said: “If Scotland decides to leave the UK, to be an independent state, and they decide to be part of the EU, I think there is no big obstacle to do that.” He added it would be “suicide” for the EU to refuse entry to people who are “sympathetic” to the EU’s aims.
After the UK leave the EU on January 31st 2020, Scotland will not be a member of the EU. Therefore, maintaining membership automatically (as was the wish of the Scottish Government in 2014) looks unlikely.
There is absolutely no reason why an independent Scotland would not be able to swiftly join the EU, as an independent nation. Scotland already meets all of the EU standards on food hygiene, safety, workers rights etc., and so, already meets all of the EU’s membership criteria. The claims that Scotland’s deficit would stop it joining, that there is a queue for membership, or that Scotland would have to join the Euro, are all manifestly untrue.
So, given the significant majority support for EU membership in Scotland, it is almost impossible to imagine that an independent Scotland would not apply and then gain EU membership very swiftly after leaving post-Brexit Britain.