Despite the UK’s departure from the European Union, the question of membership seems far from settled in Scotland, amid ongoing debates around independence. The relationship with Europe is currently viewed exclusively through the prism of Scotland’s constitutional future, preventing a full understanding of, and engagement with, the EU and Scotland’s potential place within it. Yet these are questions the new Scottish government must address.

The Scottish parliamentary (Holyrood) election held on May 6th was a significant moment for the debate on Scotland’s constitutional future. The Scottish National Party (SNP) secured 64 seats, one seat short of a majority, and the SNP and Scottish Greens together won sufficient seats to constitute a larger “pro-independence majority” in the new Scottish Parliament. Yet, beyond the political calculus, the contest also represented a notable anniversary. Ten years ago, the May 2011 Holyrood election paved the way for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Scotland has now been discussing independence intensely for a decade.

Throughout that period, Scotland’s relationship with the European Union has remained a consistent and defining theme. Maintaining EU membership, including the feasibility of “internal enlargement” of the EU, was one of the principal issues in the 2014 referendum campaign. Brexit has since ended the UK’s EU membership and reshaped politics in Scotland. The UK Government’s zealous approach to Brexit has undermined Scottish institutions, and public support for independence has increased compared to 2014. Now, Scotland’s future relationship with the EU is a core aspect of arguments around a new independence referendum.

Political positions on Scotland’s current and future relationship with the EU – as an independent state, but even as part of the UK – are largely governed by opinions on independence.

Mainstream Scottish politics is defined by a pro-European consensus, distinguishing it from English politics and more resembling those in other European countries, like Ireland. The Scottish electorate’s rejection of Brexit in the UK’s 2016 EU membership referendum is by now widely known. At the time of the referendum, all five parties in the Scottish Parliament (the same five parties returned in the May 2021 election) supported the UK remaining in the EU. Although the Scottish Conservatives later embraced Brexit, parties opposed to leaving the EU won the large majority of seats in every subsequent election in Scotland. However, now that Brexit has regrettably been realised, European relations are viewed predominantly through the filter of the constitution. Political positions on Scotland’s current and future relationship with the EU – as an independent state, but even as part of the UK – are largely governed by opinions on independence.

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The state of the debate

Despite the fact that relations with the EU have been so salient, the state of Scotland’s Europe debate is notably deficient. A general lack of Europeanisation of Scottish politics and media limits awareness and hinders debate on the topical issues driving Brussels and national capitals. In Scotland’s case, pro-EU sentiment does not equate to substance on Europe. Attention is focused almost exclusively on either Brexit and its legacy or independence and EU membership. In most respects, Scottish political debate is disconnected from the major conversations taking place in the EU – whether on the Next Generation EU recovery plan, Europe-US relations, global tax reform, or the rule of law in Europe.

In such an environment, perhaps it is not surprising that no meaningful consensus exists on Scotland’s ongoing engagement with the EU as part of the UK. It is well known that many sub-state polities, from inside and outside the Union, interact with the EU institutions, state governments and wider actors to pursue their distinct policy objectives. This engagement can focus on areas of direct competence (such as education, health, or justice) or on wider areas (such as economic affairs and foreign policy). However, in Scotland, EU relations are framed – unnecessarily and unhelpfully – by the independence debate. Before the pandemic, if senior Scottish ministers undertook political visits or trade missions within Europe (or beyond), they were regularly accused by opposition politicians of neglecting domestic affairs. The Scottish Government (run by the pro-independence SNP) and the opposition excluding the Greens (comprised of pro-UK parties) have seemingly been unable to find any discernible common ground on Scotland’s European relations.

At the same time, the government could take steps to foster consensus. Ministers could reduce the recurring references to independence which they often make during such visits in the rest of Europe. The government could involve opposition parties in some of its European trips, potentially resulting in multiparty Scottish delegations. Political disagreements between the pro-independence and pro-UK sides do not negate the fact that Scotland has European interests and positions. Some of them align with those of UK, and others do not. The twin features that currently define Scotland’s Europe debate – lack of Europeanisation and lack of consensus – are both significant obstacles to sustaining its connections with the EU in the years ahead. At present, the SNP and Scottish Greens are negotiating a potential cooperation agreement, which would not result in a coalition but would establish a kind of formal partnership. If concluded, such an agreement would likely not have a significant impact on Scotland’s European policy.

In Scotland’s case, pro-EU sentiment does not equate to substance on Europe.

Even as a cardinal theme of Scottish politics, the discourse on prospective EU membership under independence is also poor. For the most part, public conversation is stuck at the most basic level of whether an independent Scotland should be in the EU or not. Maximalist positions are prevalent: for instance, competing assertions that either Scotland would join the EU remarkably quickly or it would never be able to join. Neither is correct, of course. A favourable Scottish EU accession process could reasonably take four to five years. Recycled arguments on a select number of specific issues are regularly repeated – especially on the implications of Scotland’s national budget deficit for accession and the potential of a ‘Spanish veto’ on Scottish EU membership. Little consideration is given to much else on EU accession.

In the absence of a wider horizon, Scotland’s EU membership debate will remain incomplete. A fuller conversation would be predicated upon purposeful consideration of what kind of EU member state Scotland could be: its possible preferences and positions on all the central aspects of the EU, and the defining questions shaping the direction of the Union. Scotland could aspire to be at the core of the EU or decide to pursue a more distant membership. Thought must be given to how Scotland would undertake its EU accession journey; how it would evolve along that journey; and the relationships between its path to EU membership and the building of the Scottish state. Fundamentally, requisite appreciation must be given to the reality that Scotland would enter the EU as a (small) piece of the wider European puzzle. It would have to navigate the EU’s ongoing political and ideological battles, with which its political system has minimal prior experience or socialisation. Scottish EU membership after independence would be feasible, but it would require Scotland to evolve.

Europe in the election campaign

Scotland’s relationship with the EU did prove a recurring theme in the campaign for the May Holyrood election, but mostly in a superficial fashion. In their election manifestos, the SNP and Scottish Greens restated their support for independence and EU membership. Each also set out a collection of proposals on EU and foreign policy measures for the upcoming parliamentary term. By contrast, the Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour, and Scottish Liberal Democrats largely avoided mentioning Brexit and offered very few or no proposals on Scotland’s EU relationship as part of the UK. Their references to the EU were mainly about using the prospect of Scottish EU membership in the post-Brexit context to argue that Scotland should remain in the UK.

Beyond independence, the election campaign generated no meaningful discussion of European affairs or Scotland’s European policy separate from its constitutional future. That eventuality is not particularly surprising. Scottish electoral politics rarely, if ever, featured European issues on their own merits throughout the 20 years of the reconvened Scottish Parliament during which Scotland was part of the EU. Such a development might hardly be expected now that Scotland is not in the EU. Some issues with a European dimension – such as the UK’s non-participation in Erasmus+ – were raised during the election campaign, but only narrowly in the context of the conjoined Brexit-and-independence debate.

Months ahead of the campaign, it was evident that independence would be the central issue, competing with management of the pandemic and future recovery. However, the intensity of focus on EU membership certainly surprised some. Questions on the accession timetable, national budget deficit, currency, border with the UK, and membership referendum were all raised – and directed at the SNP. These questions were amplified by interventions from English think tanks, universities and other organisations delivered during the campaign. For its part, the SNP generally deferred giving detailed answers until a later date. However, these questions will persist and they would feature prominently in a future independence referendum campaign.

Prospects for a new independence referendum

With the new Scottish Parliament now in place, the principal focus of the independence debate will be on whether the Scottish and UK Governments eventually reach an agreement on holding a new referendum. For now, the timetable and sequencing of those efforts are unclear. It is however certain that, unlike in 2011, the UK Government will not immediately endorse a referendum in response to the election result. At some point, Edinburgh will take a step and await London’s answer. The emphasis will be on the process of a referendum rather than the substance of independence. Nevertheless, discussion on issues – including prospective EU membership – will undoubtedly continue and may yet intensify in the medium term.

Separate from the arguments on a new referendum taking place, the Scottish public would benefit from a more substantive and detailed debate on EU membership. At its heart, such an improved debate would necessitate the rejection of the prevailing tendency in Scottish politics to assess the EU in overly simplistic terms – as something to be idolised or rejected. In reality, we know that the EU is a multifaceted Union with deep complexities and faces both challenges and opportunities. Greater substance will provide the nuance which is missing from Scotland’s Europe debate. Should Scotland become independent in the future and seek to join the EU, its prospects for success as a new member state would depend on a coherent vision and an internalisation of EU affairs. The centrality of Europe in Scottish politics will persist for, whatever their opinions on independence, most Scots recognise the importance to Scotland of its relationship with the EU.

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