Kirsty Hughes (Scottish Centre on European Relations)
The Scottish elections resulted in a fifteen seat majority for the Scottish National Party and Scottish Greens – with both parties committed to having another independence referendum and to independence in the European Union. Yet Boris Johnson has continued to insist that there should be no discussion of another vote on independence any time soon, let alone while the pandemic and recovery from the pandemic are the core priorities. Even so, his cabinet colleague Michael Gove did admit, in a BBC interview the day after the results, that the UK was a voluntary union and Scotland could, in principle, leave (words that will not doubt be quoted back at him many times).
For now, the constitutional stand-off between UK and Scottish governments looks set to continue indefinitely. Back in 2017, Theresa May had said that now was not the time for another vote too, when Nicola Sturgeon had asked for a so-called ‘section 30’ order to enable the Scottish parliament to hold another referendum given the major and unwelcome (in Scotland) change of the Brexit vote.
But there is change as well as continuity here. In 2017, the type of Brexit that might finally emerge, or indeed whether there might be a second vote on leaving the EU at all, were uncertain. Now, in mid-2021, the UK has been outside the EU for 15 months and outside its single market and customs union for over four months.
The Scottish public are still clearly in favour of being part of the EU, having voted 62% for remain in 2016. But the public is split, pretty much 50:50, on independence. Yet within these figures, it is clear that younger people are both strongly pro-European and pro-independence; depending on the poll, there is a majority for independence in all age groups under 50 or 55 years of age. Some polls suggest if an independent Scotland was guaranteed membership of the EU again that the support for independence would go higher again (as it did throughout the second half of 2020 in the face of Scottish voters having much more confidence in Nicola Sturgeon than Boris Johnson in their management of the pandemic).
The question of independence in the EU did come up during the election campaign, mostly with a focus on the issue of the border there would then be between Scotland and England. With the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and UK in place since 1st January 2021, there is now a hard and economically-damaging border that is already reducing trade between the two. The question is whether independence would hurt Scotland’s economy due to the border, just as Brexit is already damaging the UK economy (with an internal border between Britain and Northern Ireland also causing difficulties both practical and political).
In the end, the answer to the border question and other issues around independence depends on the overarching economic, political, democratic and security case for independence. These issues were not discussed in any serious depth during the election campaign; rather it was more a campaign, on both sides, about whether another referendum should be held or not.
The EU is watching the constitutional pressures and debates in the UK, and the potential for the UK to fragment not only via Scottish independence but also should Irish unification happen at some future point. EU member states and Brussels will continue to step gingerly around the debate in Scotland, not expressing a view either way on the constitutional divisions within a third country.
But, if and when there is another Scottish independence referendum, the EU will surely be asked, as it was in 2014, whether an independent Scotland could rejoin the EU. The answer, at one level, should be straightforward: any European state can apply to join the EU and as long as an independent Scotland is recognised by EU member states (which would mean that it had become independent through a legally and constitutionally valid process) then it too could apply.
If Scotland, when it applied to the EU, had not diverged far from the EU’s acquis, then it could also be expected to potentially have a rather swift accession process. Nonetheless, while there is a lot of sympathy across the EU for Scotland having been taken out of the EU while voting to remain, a studied neutrality is probably all that will be seen from EU governments for the foreseeable future.
However, after a referendum, if Scotland voted ‘yes’ to independence, the EU may find it has to get involved in some discussions even while the rest of the UK and Scotland were negotiating their divorce. After all, if Scotland leaves the UK, then the UK (if it’s still called that) will have lost both a third of its land mass and a substantial part of its territorial waters. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement’s deal on access to fishing waters will surely need revisiting at that point, as may other parts of the agreement.
The EU has many other priorities on its agenda than the EU-UK relationship, let alone the UK’s internal constitutional debates that have been strongly stirred up by Brexit. But Brexit’s shadow is going to continue to be felt both within Scotland and the rest of the UK, and in the UK and Scotland’s relations with the EU, for many years to come.
Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations.
The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.