Brexit, the EU and Scottish independence

I blogged a couple of weeks ago in what I feared might be the first in a second wave of posts about Scottish independence. Going by today’s announcement that the Scottish Government will seek permission to hold a second referendum, it looks very much like my fears will be realised.

A few thoughts I’ve had bubbling in my mind regarding the question relate to the very origin of this second movement for independence: the Brexit referendum of June 2016. In that controversial vote, the United Kingdom as a whole voted by a tiny margin to leave the EU, but Scotland voted by a substantial 62-38 margin to remain.

It’s turned out to be a wee bit of a constitutional quandary, and the Scottish Government has argued that, in the light of perceived UK Government intransigence on actions that could keep Scotland at least in the single market while respecting the 2014 independence referendum result, another ballot on Scotland’s future is necessary.

If you’ve not seen the First Minister’s announcement today, it was very balanced and measured and is worth a read to help set the scene.

And if the day’s news has been anything to go by, it seems, very sadly, that a lot of the old cliches and myths about Scotland’s place within the European Union are going to be trotted out again in the coming months. It’s a shame that these weren’t put to bed last time, and I fear that the debate this time round may simply be a rehash of the last one, at least on the part of the media.

So I thought I’d put finger to keyboard on a few frustrations I have about the discussions about Scotland, Brexit and the EU. There are three myths I can think of that I’d like to tackle.

1. An independent Scotland would need to join the queue for EU membership

Let’s be clear: there is no queue. It’s not a case of countries joining one by one. Many countries can be in the application process at the same time, and at different speeds. It’s not like the Post Office, where you get served in turn. If there was a queue, then Turkey would still be holding everyone up.

They first began the process of application in 1987, a process that has stalled many times due to a number of reasons including its treatment of minorities and the small matter of the 2016 coup attempt. The application is still, however, technically live so if there was a queue then Turkey would be still at the Post Office counter, remonstrating loudly and demanding to see the manager, while a grand total of 16 current EU members would be huffing and tutting impatiently in the queue behind them.

In fact, to continue the Post Office metaphor, you could say there are actually multiple service points, and to be specific we know that there are at least ten. In 2004 the EU simultaneously admitted ten new member states, the so-called A10, all of whom travelled at different speeds in their negotiations to get to that combined point. Indeed, such was the variable speed, that Bulgaria and Romania actually didn’t join until a couple of years later, despite the fact that Romania first got its application in ahead of most of 2004’s new members.

(So actually, there are probably more than ten service points as the EU is of course now larger and has greater administrative capacity. And the thought of all ten or more being used at once any time soon, to the exclusion of Scotland, are slim given that there is no big mass increase of membership on the horizon that is the size of the 2004 expansion.)

Why those variable speeds? Well, it’s not a political decision about whether the EU member states like the cut of the applicants’ jibs or not (except insofar as whether the applicant counts as “European” or not). It basically comes down to a technical assessment of how good each member state is at complying with the criteria for membership. Those criteria are listed in the rather bureaucratically named “Chapters of the acquis”. There are 35 chapters, and you can see the list here on the European Commission’s website.

They cover a whole range of technical subjects, like “Food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy” and more recognisable terms like education and culture, or fisheries. But the first four, for instance, are recognisable as relating to the four fundamental freedoms of movement across the EU – for workers, goods, services and capital (the four freedoms which look certain to be under threat from the UK’s withdrawal).

Within each chapter, discussions will take place between the applicant country’s relevant government department and the equivalent team in the European Commission, work progress will be monitored, and eventually each of the chapters will be signed off as complete allowing for the country to be approved as a member.

It sounds like a tall order, and it absolutely is in a sense. But of course the UK, of which Scotland is a part, already complies with them all. So all we need to do is ensure that Scotland does too. And that job is pretty easy because so many of the chapters relate to responsibilities that are already devolved to Scotland – from agriculture to transport, and from justice to the environment, the Scottish Government already complies with these regulations; not because it wants to (though it does) but because it has to by law.

In those cases, presumably the chapters would still need to be worked through, but they’d pretty inconsequentially quick. It would be like setting Stephen Hawking a test on his times tables. Yes it would be a test, no there’d not be any doubt, yes it would be in the bag before you knew it.

There are a few chapters, of course, which are wholly concerned with matters reserved to the UK Government, such as foreign affairs and defence, or ones which are split between the UK and Scottish levels of administration, such as taxation or finance.

But the idea that those represent insurmountable challenges, when other countries are starting from scratch, is preposterous. Scotland already works with, is served by, and indeed contributes personnel to, reserved UK departments, and it is likely that compliance can be achieved very easily by either copying and pasting existing procedures in the short term, or adjusting things here and there to fit the policies and priorities of the Scottish Government. The idea that Scotland would fail or delay in any of these chapters is to imagine the most extraordinary incompetence on the part of the Scottish Government, and an extraordinarily hostile failure to aid the transition on the part of of the UK and EU administrations.

Because, as I see it, it is in the interests of both parties to get Scotland through the process as swiftly as possible.

And that leads me to my second myth.

2. Scotland would have to fully leave the EU, then reapply

These are the two basic steps that some people would have you believe will be involved in Scotland becoming an independent member of the EU:

  • 2018 (for the sake of argument): Scotland votes for independence. Negotiations with the UK Government begin. The Scottish Government phones up the European Commission (the executive and administration of the EU) the morning after, but are told that there’ll be no talks until Scotland is actually independent.
  • 2020 (or thereabouts): Scotland becomes actually independent. By default, Scotland leaves the EU. Scotland gets on the blower, and this time the European Commission finally agrees to talk. Talks begin, and drag on for however long they take, during which time Scotland is outside the EU and cannot have full access to, for instance, the common market.

That scenario is a pile of nonsense.

As I’ve tried to argue above, Scotland’s completion of the accession criteria would be a swift one. Arguably, given its unique position as the first existing EU territory to become a full member, it would be the swiftest on record because it will be already compliant with the criteria.

I’m no expert on EU constitutional regulations, but I wonder if Scotland is likely to complete these chapters in a matter of months, perhaps a year at a worst guess. Now, given that the Scottish Government has expressed its intention for Scotland to remain a part of the EU, the EU will not want to get rid of five million of these citizens upon independence, knowing they will almost certainly be readmitted as a new member state just a short time later.

The EU is famed (perhaps unfairly, by the way) for its bureaucracy, but nobody in their right mind would want the immense hassle of kicking out Scotland in the full knowledge that it will be opening the door to welcome it back in within a matter of months. It would be a political, administrative and diplomatic nightmare created for no sound reason.

It will not be slow to occur to the European Commission and the other member states that it would be much less painful all round to keep Scotland in while negotiations are completed, because it will be in everyone’s interests.

We might conceive that Scotland votes for independence a few months before Brexit actually happens, and then independence itself happens eighteen months or so later (going by the timetable proposed in 2014 – and it’s to nobody’s gain that it drags on). That might mean a year or so in between Brexit Day (can we call it B-Day?) and Independence Day (I–Day, if you will… or Aye Day, even?). The idea that the EU would not give some sort of associate status, or at least access to the single market, to Scotland in that time is to suggest that the EU would actually like to make the process more complicated for itself. And there is no conceivable benefit to anyone to do so.

It all comes down to what is reasonable. And I can’t see any reason for an outbreak of unreasonableness in the Scottish Government, the European Commission, or indeed the other remaining EU member states.

Which leads to myth number…

3. Spain would veto Scotland’s membership of the EU

No they wouldn’t.

Firstly, they’ve said they wouldn’t. Or at least a senior politician from the ruling party in Spain has said they wouldn’t. Of course Spain would expect Scotland to go through the full process, but as I’ve hopefully explained above, that full process will be entirely procedural for the most part.

Secondly, even if they were inclined to do so – and of course the words of a single politician should never be taken as gospel on any issue – it is not in Spain’s interests to do so. Spanish citizens have access to tuition-free university education in Scotland and to Scottish fishing waters, something that could not happen if either Spain or Scotland were outside the EU.

Yes governments can sometimes do things to spite themselves. Just look at the UK Government’s handling of Brexit. But in terms of Scotland’s accession to the EU, Spain will be considering the issue as part of a 27-strong team of EU members. It is unthinkable that Spain, or any country that raised concerns, would be allowed to impose unnecessary delay to what should, again, be a relatively straightforward process.

Moving on

I do hope this debate moves on from the same old lines from 2014. Scotland has changed. Things have moved on. Brexit has happened. The same old arguments will not cut mustard. Especially when they are presented in a way that almost appears to glorify and revel in Scotland’s supposed inconvenience. I’m always amazed at Unionist politicians who talk about Scotland’s perceived difficulties with the EU not as issues to be explored and overcome but as disadvantages to gloat over and celebrate. This incitement to hostility is a deeply unedifying spectacle, and always was back in the run up to 2014.

We need to focus the debate on new issues: the rights of immigrants in Scotland. Preventing the rise of xenophobia. Making Scotland stand up for inclusion, tolerance and multiculturalism. Reaching out to support refugees across Europe and beyond.

In a sense, while Brexit was the trigger for fresh thinking about independence, it is actually not simply a technical question about the EU. There’s a bigger question, about the sort of country Scotland can be, and whether being ridden roughshod within the UK or being an equal member of the EU is the best arena for becoming that country.

That should be our debate. Not the old questions. We’ve moved on. At least, I intend to.

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