Would an independent Scotland join the EU?

One of the key Better Together claims that led many people to vote ‘No’ in 2014 was that an independent Scotland would lose its EU membership. Now after Brexit, rejoining the EU has become the key reason given by voters that have switched from No to Yes on independence. 

The question of whether an independent Scotland would join the EU is a key one for almost all undecided voters.  They also want to know how the joining process would work.

Scotland Voted Remain

In the UK referendum on EU membership on the 23rd of June 2016, a resounding majority of 62% of Scottish people voted to remain, with only 38% voting to leave. All of Scotland’s 32 councils voted to remain and Scotland was the most pro-EU of all four countries that make up the UK. 

Since the Brexit vote, the political chasm between the UK and Scotland has widened significantly. In the 2019 General Election, the SNP, who are ardently pro-EU, won over 80% of seats in Scotland, while a virulently pro-Brexit Conservative Party won a landslide victory in England. Scotland’s views on the EU have not changed much since. A large-scale poll conducted by Believe in Scotland in February 2023 found that 68% of Scottish voters wanted an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU – an increase of support even compared to the majority for Remain in 2016. 

So, could an independent Scotland be a member of the EU?

  • The UK officially left the EU on Friday, 31st January 2020. Which means that when Scotland becomes independent, it would not be a member of the EU. 
  • We can see that there has been a consistent majority in support for rejoining the EU since Brexit. If there were a referendum held on joining the EU, a sizeable mandate would be highly probable.  
  • There is, however, a simpler answer. The SNP, who currently run the Scottish Government and hold a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster, along with the similarly pro-EU Greens, are the current political party leaders of the independence movement. This means that any formal process of establishing independence through votes would be predicated on a mandate to rejoin the EU. 

How does joining the EU work?

  • For an independent Scotland to join the EU, it would first have to complete the process of becoming an independent country. This would have to be a democratic process that was also recognised by all of the European member states, as well as the rest of the UK. Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations, previously estimated that Scotland could join the EU around four to five years after independence. 
  • However, the process of joining the EU could begin at the same time as the process of becoming independent. That means that Scotland could start taking steps to prepare itself for EU membership the day after a successful referendum (as one example). This would help to speed up the process of joining. 
  • According to campaigning group Yes for EU, Scotland is ‘uniquely qualified for an ambitious association agreement’. Association Agreements contain transitional arrangements which help to facilitate economic cooperation between EU member states and non-members or candidate countries. 
    • This could include agreements on key issues such as entry into the Single Market, currency and the trade border with England/rUK. 
    • Given the close historical relationship between Scotland and Europe, an Association Agreement would be an effective way to introduce several elements of EU membership into an independent Scotland during the official joining process. This means that an independent Scotland would not be ‘waiting alone’ to join the EU post-independence but would instead be actively collaborating with the rest of Europe. 
  • While in 2014, opponents of independence argued that some EU members, such as Spain and Belgium, could veto Scotland joining due to their own secessionist movements, this is not the case. Ministers from both major left and right parties in Spain have since confirmed that they would not object to or veto Scotland becoming a member state – so long as independence is obtained through legal, democratic and internationally-recognised means. 
  • After the Brexit vote, many individual MEPs spoke out about an independent Scotland’s ability to rejoin the EU. After the official withdrawal vote in the European Parliament in January 2020, a group of representatives gathered to ‘leave a light on’ for Scotland to eventually return. 

The Verdict:

After the UK left the EU on the 31st of January 2020, Scotland was also withdrawn as a member. If we were to join the EU again, it would have to be as an independent country. 

However, there is no reason why an independent Scotland would be unable to join the EU. There is a consistent majority in favour of joining – higher than support for independence. The current government supports EU membership. There are no EU countries that would object. 

Given the significant support for EU membership in Scotland, it is very likely that after independence, Scotland would seek to join the EU. Given that preparations for membership and negotiations for an Association Agreement could begin immediately following an independence mandate in a national vote, this would make the joining process a lot smoother than critics sometimes suggest.