Thanks to Brexit, Scotland now faces a far starker choice than it did in 2014by Kirsty Hughes / October 14, 2019 / Leave a comment
Brexit stumbles on towards its Halloween deadline mired, as ever, in uncertainty. But Brexit has certainly already weakened the Union: on Sunday, just ahead of the SNP’s annual conference, Nicola Sturgeon said she would ask for a second Scottish independence referendum “within weeks.”
Recent polls suggest an increase in support for independence to about 50 per cent, mainly driven by some Remain voters shifting towards it. If Brexit actually happens—with or without a deal—that will give a further boost to the independence cause as the consequences become real.
But if Scotland votes in the next couple of years for independence, as the UK embarks on Brexit, will it easily re-join the EU—and how might that impact on its own divorce from the UK?
Scotland currently meets most EU criteria for membership, not least already complying with EU laws and regulations—albeit being part of the UK’s opt-outs from the euro, Schengen and some legislation in the area of justice and home affairs. Even in a messy no-deal Brexit, the chances are Scotland would not have diverged much from EU laws if it was looking to begin accession talks say in around 2023—though it would be unlikely to get a new euro opt-out.
Having a goal of joining the euro would be controversial. But the likely size of an independent Scotland’s budget would preclude it from joining the single currency for several years anyway. Less debated is the tricky fact that if Scotland did stick with the pound for several years after independence (as is SNP policy) it might not meet accession criteria on monetary policy—promoting price stability and treating its exchange rate with member states as a matter of common concern.
During the first independence referendum in 2014, Commission president Barroso went out of his way to say re-joining the EU would be tricky and lengthy. The mood music is now very different. The main message from EU capitals is that, if a Scottish independence referendum is legally and constitutionally valid (a crucial condition—pace Catalonia), then Scotland is set fair for a fairly swift, if standard, accession process.
Twenty five years ago, the then European Free Trade Association states of Finland, Sweden and Austria negotiated EU accession within two years. Scotland might be pushed to do the same, but from a standing start of putting in an application to talks to ratification, accession could, at the fastest, conceivably be done in three years. Indeed, if UK-EU talks on their future relationship take as long as the Canada-EU trade deal, an independent Scotland could even be in the EU (perhaps in 2026) before that future UK deal is finalised—ironically, an independent Scotland in the EU would then have a potential veto on a future UK-EU deal.
There is of course many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. Sturgeon has often said that she wants to see more certainty about Brexit before another independence referendum. Yet even if the UK leaves the EU soon, the definite shape of the future UK-EU relationship will remain unclear.
If Boris Johnson is prime minister after the UK leaves, we will surely head towards a harder Brexit with a basic free trade deal and hard borders. If Jeremy Corbyn were to win the next election, we would be back into discussion of a customs union and single market alignment. Uncertainty on this will not help the debates during any second independence referendum.
The softer the Brexit deal, the easier the arguments are for independence. There will be less to disentangle and less differentiation between Scotland and the rest of the UK. And, crucially, there will be less of a hard border. With a Johnson-style hard Brexit, there would need to be a much harder Scotland-England border. Such a border would look not so much like whatever deal is tacked together for Northern Ireland. Rather, it would look very like the future Republic of Ireland-UK border in the Irish Sea—it would be an EU border.
There’s a Brexit-independence conundrum here—a harder Brexit is likely to shift more voters towards independence, but a harder Brexit will make for some tough debates about a hard border at Berwick and its impact on the economy and indeed on identity (even if, as is likely, an independent Scotland remains part of the UK-Ireland common travel area).
So far, the SNP has dealt with this likely border challenge by mostly ignoring it—justified somewhat by the lack of clarity over the future UK-EU border. But this debate must be faced at some point—an open border with the EU, as a member state, means a harder border with the rest of the UK.
But if Brexit has happened and there is one Irish Sea border between Britain and Northern Ireland and a somewhat harder one between Britain and the Republic of Ireland (just as there will be between Dover and Calais), this may in some ways help the pro-independence side. There will be economic costs, as there are with Brexit, of a harder border—but if France, Ireland and Northern Ireland can cope, then, the argument will surely go, so can Scotland.
Scotland faces a stark choice—much more so than in 2014—but while there will be arguments aplenty on the economics, this time its welcome from the EU is much more assured. And whoever is in power, the UK government cannot say no forever to another independence referendum.
Kirsty Hughes, Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations