Hurry to come back! How Scotland could come back to the EU – POLITICO
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The electoral victory of the independence parties in Scotland is an urgent question for one union – the United Kingdom – but it can also pose important questions across the board for another: the EU.
Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Scottish Greens, who together claimed an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament, both stood on the platform of an independent Scotland joining the European Union .
Sturgeon will have to overcome many obstacles before arriving in Brussels to apply for membership. She is expected to get another legal vote for independence – which the UK government has so far refused to grant – and win it. The independence camp lost the last referendum by more than 10 percentage points in 2014 and polls suggest Scots are currently evenly split on the issue.
But if that moment arrives, how would the EU deal with such a request? And what advantages and what disadvantages would an independent Scotland have in becoming a member?
An application for membership from Edinburgh would present the EU with a unique case – a country that had previously been inside the bloc as part of a former member state asking to join the fold. But, in legal terms, this context would not matter: Scotland would have to follow the same procedure to apply for membership as any other country, as indicated under Article 49 of the bloc’s treaties.
Though there is a number of countries already on hold – mainly the Western Balkan countries which applied years ago – things could go a lot faster in the Scottish case.
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“Scotland would be assessed like any other candidate country for the state of its democracy, the state of its economy. And in many ways that sounds pretty positive, ”Kirsty Hughes, director of the Scottish Center on European Relations think tank, told POLITICO. Confidential EU podcast.
“You can compare it to the Western Balkans and say, ‘Look, a long-standing democracy… it has its own parliament, it has its own legal system, it has its own separate education system from the rest of the UK,” Hughes said.
However, an independent Scotland should put in place new institutions such as a central bank, a foreign ministry and various regulators – and the EU should be convinced that they meet bloc standards and are robust and resilient. .
Some of the most serious controls an independent Scotland would face from the EU would relate to the economy and public finances.
A recent study Britain’s Institute for Government think-tank concluded that an independent Scotland risked starting with a much higher deficit than would normally be allowed under EU rules.
The SNP suggested that Scotland would continue to use the pound sterling, even without permission from UK authorities. It is at least doubtful whether the EU is happy for a member state to use the currency of a non-member, especially the UK (EU requires new members to commit to joining the euro – although some have yet to adopt it after many years of membership.)
“Of course, any instability, whether of a political, economic or fiscal nature, would reduce the appetite for enlargement on the EU side,” Fabian Zuleeg, director general of the European Policy Center think tank, told Brussels.
He added that Brussels would also want to ensure that Scotland becomes a net contributor to the EU budget instead of a child with economic or tax problems.
“The Scottish government here has some homework to make sure everything runs smoothly,” Zuleeg said. “However, in principle there is no reason to believe that Scotland could not act independently economically and be financially stable.”
And on the political front, Zuleeg said there would be a lot of goodwill on the part of the EU.
“We are talking here about a part of the UK which, also because of Brexit, is seeking independence and wants to belong to the EU’s community of values,” Zuleeg said. “And in that regard, I think the mood on the EU side is quite positive.”
He suggested that an independent Scotland might be able to conclude accession negotiations in two to three years, like Finland’s accession process in the mid-1990s.
Everyone is waiting for the Spanish Inquisition
Despite this general goodwill, Scotland would first need to clear a crucial hurdle: winning the blessing of all EU countries, as approval to start membership negotiations requires unanimity among the current members.
Spain, in particular, has long been suspicious of any treatment of Scotland that might encourage independence movements within its own borders, such as those of Catalonia or the Basque Country.
Ignacio Molina, senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid-based think tank, said it would be crucial for Spain if any Scottish secession was legal under British law and not unilaterally declared as the regional government of Catalonia attempted to do so in 2017.
However, as long as this condition is met, “there will be no veto” from Spain, Molina predicted. He added that an appeasement of the political situation in Catalonia as well as the composition of the current left-wing Spanish government, which is partially supported by moderate independentist Catalans, “contributes to emphasizing these technical considerations without strong politicization. of the problem. “
Madrid will probably require certain assurances: “What Spanish diplomacy has always emphasized is that Scotland should apply like any other candidate, without any shortcuts or privileges, such as for example a withdrawal from the euro or the Schengen area, ”said Molina.
Part of this ‘no privileges’ approach, Molina said, is that Spain would not accept the EU giving assurances to Scotland ahead of an independence referendum that it has a guaranteed path to it. membership, as was recently demanded in an open letter by more than 170 cultural figures from across the EU.
Difficulties of divergence
Another more technical hurdle for early EU membership is the UK’s post-Brexit desire to deviate from certain EU rules, for example on food safety and animal welfare, in part to have more flexibility to conclude trade agreements with countries like the United States. .
A potential independence date of 2026 announced by the SNP “is only five years away, but how far could Scotland and the rest of the UK have diverged in EU regulations by now?” the?” Hughes asked. “And how long will it take to come back?”
The question raises big questions about how a border between an independent Scotland – inside the EU – and the UK – which would remain outside – would work. The ongoing feuds on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland show just how thorny these issues can be.
Scotland should also find a way to bridge the gap between leaving the UK, and hence the EU-UK trade deal, and joining the EU and its single market.
A temporary solution to avoid the imposition of crippling tariffs for Scottish businesses could be to negotiate a transition phase with the EU and the UK, during which Scotland remains a member of the post-Brexit trade deal. between London and Brussels although she left the UK.
However, there would be many technical challenges and potential trade friction if the UK, for example, deviated from EU standards while Scotland simultaneously tried to converge as part of its bid to membership. Ultimately, Scotland may have to rely on complicated patchwork solutions to try to preserve both its trade with the rest of the EU and across a future border between Scotland and Great Britain. Brittany.
David McAllister, a German Christian Democrat with Scottish roots who chairs the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said there are “many uncertainties” about the conditions under which Scotland might leave the UK.
“So at the moment this is a purely domestic Scottish and domestic British issue” on which EU officials are unwilling to comment, McAllister said, speaking days before the Scottish elections.
“But if they became an independent state, they could apply for membership like any European country that is committed to sharing and promoting the values of the EU. And we would examine all the difficult political, economic and legal issues as with any other candidate country. “