The referendum campaign devoted much attention to how and whether an independent Scotland would negotiate to stay in, re-join, or even leave, the European Union. But the bigger question by far is what sort of member state an independent Scotland would be? And could it escape the tarnished eurosceptic reputation that the UK has created for itself?
The UK has lost a huge amount of influence in the last two decades, as it opted-out from ever more policies – the single currency, the ‘Schengen’ border-free area, a whole host of justice and home affairs policies, and even the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights – and used its veto repeatedly in ways seen as deeply unhelpful and anti-European across the rest of the EU.
Even so, the UK still gets taken seriously because it is one of the largest member states. Some (Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and others) see it as important for its pro-free market stance and still more for its potential foreign and security policy reach. Yet, where ten years ago the UK was, seen as one of the ‘big three’ along with France and Germany, it is now viewedas a difficult, sceptical player with much less clout positioned on an ‘outer tier’ of the European Union.
Scotland, as a new, independent member state, would have a chance to make a fresh start and create a very different reputation for itself. But that would depend on decisions taken very early on – both during the negotiations to determine its position as a separate member state (budget contributions, any opt-outs and so forth), and in the first few years of its membership.
Scotland would need to be aware it faced the risk of being labelled from the start as part of the British awkward squad – a reputation hard to cast off.
Choices for Scotland – awkward, weak or influential?
It’s likely that an independent Scotland would be able to negotiate EU membership very quickly. It already applies almost all EU laws, receives regional funding, and its inhabitants are EU citizens.
Where Sweden and Finland needed 18 months to negotiate to join the EU in the early 1990s, Scotland could deal with the few but big issues in a much shorter period – and so could simply go from being in the EU as part of the UK to being in the EU as a new member state.
The big challenge in this crucial, and short, period would be what positions Scotland adopts on the existing UK opt-outs and budget rebate. And the political stances it then adopted in its first years as a new member state would cement how it is seen in Europe.
Broadly, Scotland could end up in one of three categories. The big challenge would be to choose strategically which one rather than letting a series of ad hoc choices result in unintended and possibly damaging outcomes.
Option One: Scotland as Eurosceptic nuisance
Scotland could choose to enter the negotiations with Brussels aiming to keep all the UK’s existing opt-outs – from the euro, from ‘Schengen’, from justice and home affairs, from the Charter of Rights – and fighting to keep its share of the UK budget rebate.
This would be a direct route to establishing Scotland as a eurosceptic nuisance. It would tell the rest of the EU that Scotland wanted, like the UK, to have all the privileges of membership, while sitting on a semi-detached outer tier.
Such a negative stance would send the negotiations with the EU heading for the rocks.
Scotland would have a good chance, like Ireland and the UK, of a deal to stay out of ‘border-free’ Europe, in order to keep its land border open with England. It would lose some clout as a result, but the rationale for this, given England’s opt-out (assuming this continued), would be seen as reasonable and not specifically eurosceptic.
But the chances of an independent Scotland succeeding in negotiating a full opt-out from the euro are slight. Scotland would begin to establish itself as a eurosceptic player by attempting to bargain for this – when the most it could hope for would be an implicit opt-out such as Sweden has (no formal deal but no intention of joining).
Nor would the rest of the EU be in any mood to concede to a small member state like Scotland the ‘cherry-picking’ right to opt-out or into the myriad of justice and home affairs measures, and out of the Charter of Rights, that the UK wrung out of the Lisbon Treaty talks.
Last but not least, the UK’s budget rebate is hugely resented across the EU. Scotland’s chances of getting the same or a similar deal would be slight indeed yet the impact on its reputation would be longer-lasting. It could come out of such talks bruised, and its “nuisance” reputation cemented.
Option Two: Scotland, the self-interested bystander
A different, non-eurosceptic choice for the newly independent Scotland would be to position the country firmly within the EU’s policies, accepting a long-run commitment to the euro, opting-in to justice and home affairs measures, and the charter of rights, perhaps trying for a budget deal but not over-playing its hand.
The ‘self-interested bystander’ approach would be one where Scotland chose not to invest heavily in its European role, whether at ministerial level and in its diplomatic service, but rather to focus on a few key areas of national interest. These would include energy (given North Sea oil) and fisheries.
Scotland would not have big clout in these areas – the EU has moved so far towards majority voting across most EU policy areas. But it could aim to build up alliances with any other like-minded member states as well as argue its case as the details of laws and policies came up in Council and the European Parliament. This would leave it some narrow influence.
It would be seen as a small player, defending its interests in a few key areas while not blocking progress in areas of little or no concern to it. Scotland would soon be recognised as not contributing to wider pan-European policies and debates but it would be acknowledged not as a British-style eurosceptic trouble-maker but rather as a ‘self-interested bystander’.
Option Three: Scotland, the small but influential player
Scotland could finally decide to be a much more positive European player building up serious influence over time. As a smaller member, it wouldn’t have the clout of France or Germany, obviously. But it could invest significantly at political and diplomatic levels in building up great EU expertise and alliances, thereby developing influence beyond its simple voting quotas.
Scotland would thus enter negotiations in a positive spirit, stating up front its wish to be part of all justice and home affairs measures, standing up for the importance of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and accepting that it can put off any decision on the euro (which it wouldn’t yet qualify to join) Swedish-style at least for a few years.
It could go further – and burnish its credentials as a new, pro-European member state – by stating it would in the future like to be part of the ‘Schengen’ border-free area and it hoped England would facilitate this by dropping its own long-standing opt-out. The need in the short-term to have a Scottish opt-out would then be the fault of eurosceptic England.
Having established a reputation as a constructive, pro-European player, Scotland would need a well-thought-out strategy for its first few years of EU membership – and one that seamlessly connected its EU and wider foreign policy.
Scotland could aim to build up a reputation like Ireland – a constructive player that has shown its ability to step in and mediate big political bargains in the Union (as Dublin did back in 2004 on the ultimately ill-fated constitutional treaty) – but without over-estimating its reach. It could decide to develop a Nordic-style reputation for leading on human rights and on mediation in international conflicts. Or it could invest in a small number of policy areas, being seen as one of the leading proponents, for instance, of a digital Europe (from digital competitiveness to digital rights), or joining up with other northern EU member states on the EU’s policies regarding its northern and eastern borders.
To build up such a constructive and influential role and reputation in a few years, Scotland would need to give consistent political attention at the highest levels to the EU and prioritise investment in a diplomatic corps mandated to develop a set of effective and strong alliances across a range of EU member states. And it would need to show it can operate intelligently in Europe – ready to compromise, to be flexible, showing it can be innovative and constructive.
Scotland in the EU – or not?
An independent Scotland should choose carefully what sort of EU member state it would want to be. It would be only too easy to make the British error of adopting ‘awkward squad’ positions in tough negotiations over its status as a new member state, and then imagine wrongly that it would not have damaged its reputation and influence in the EU in the years ahead, being seen as a ‘eurosceptic nuisance’ just like the UK.
There would be a genuine choice for an independent Scotland between investing heavily in being one of the more influential smaller member states, like Ireland, or taking a back seat role as ‘the self-interested bystander’. But it would be hard to see why the benefits of the former would not win the strategic argument.
If though Scotland does want to play the role of ‘eurosceptic nuisance’, it should surely then consider one more option – leaving the EU.
Scotland could, like Norway, be part of the European Economic Area. It would then be on the receiving end of Single Market rules and decisions from Brussels – what some in Norway have called a “fax democracy”. But instead of being seen as a difficult, truculent ‘eurosceptic nuisance’, Scotland could develop, just like Norway, its own more positive, international image and role – albeit with very little say or influence in Europe or the wider world.
As part of the UK, it is easy today for Scotland to pride itself on being more constructive and rational in its attitudes to the EU. But on independence, Scotland would need rapidly to make a clear choice on what sort of EU player it wanted to be. And, for Scotland’s and the EU’s sake, if the choice ended up being to emulate the UK’s long-standing euroscepticism, then let’s hope Scotland would take the Norwegian route – and leave.