Scotland, the European Union, and Brexit

On September 18th 2014 voters in Scotland were asked, “should Scotland be an independent country?”. With 55.3% of votes, the answer was no. However, the issue of independence is still a central part of Scottish politics, especially in the wake of the Brexit vote. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has announced the Scottish government’s intention to hold a second independence referendum in the wake of the vote to leave the European Union. Although membership of the EU is perhaps the most important factor in this debate, there are a number of factors that were evident in the last independence campaign and new issues that have since arisen.

After the May 2016 Scottish Elections the SNP stated the conditions in which a second independence referendum would be considered: if there was clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people, or if there was a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will. One of the main reasons for many people voting ‘no’ in the first referendum is that they wished to remain part of the EU, and for that to be guaranteed, Scotland had to remain part of the UK. On June 23rd 2016 the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, with 62% of voters in Scotland voting to remain.

Nicola Sturgeon announcing plans for a second independence referendum, by the Scottish Government

On March 13th 2017 Nicola Sturgeon announced her intention to hold a second independence referendum, and at the end of March, the Scottish Parliament voted 69 – 59 in favour of another referendum. Opposition leaders Ruth Davidson (Scottish Conservative) and Willie Rennie (Liberal Democrats) have spoken out against the calls for a second referendum, stating that it is selfish of the SNP to push their independence agenda. Since the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament the SNP have made clear in their manifestos that an independent Scotland is a priority, throughout the years this has been an issue of contention within Scottish politics and within Scottish society.

One of the main problems with understanding how Scotland would function as an independent country is that some basic understandings of an independent Scotland are based on unsubstantiated claims whilst others are completely unknown, factors such as EU membership, whether the Queen would remain head of state, and issues surrounding North Sea Oil. It has been pointed out that arguing that the majority of Scots want to remain in the EU as a justification for a second independence referendum, when in 2014 the majority voted against independence, is hypocritical and unfair. Arguably this is not an appropriate time for the UK and Scottish governments to even be considering a second independence referendum, there is too much confusion and disagreement over Brexit and what leaving the EU entails. However, discussing this issue with the UK government whilst it is still part of the EU, and thus has some power and influence, may be beneficial to an independent Scotland joining the EU. Current Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that there will be no consideration of a second Scottish independence referendum until the UK has left the European Union. There is also the matter of post-Brexit sentiment within the UK, with many unable to accept that Scotland would leave the UK as a result of the Brexit vote. How an independent Scotland with EU membership would interact with a non-EU Britain is unknown, with issues ranging from trade to having to show passports at the England-Scotland border.

Theresa May triggering Article 50 and the UK departure from the European Union, by Jay Allen

One of the key issues of the new independence debate is whether it would be possible for an independent Scotland to become a full member state of the European Union. The European Commission’s head of representation in the UK stated that Scotland would need to formally apply to become a member state but ‘could be fast-tracked because it already complies with EU rules and regulations’ However, it is not known how an independent Scotland would benefit from the EU in comparison to how it currently does as part of the UK within the EU. There was the threat that some EU member states would veto Scotland’s attempt to join, with Spain fears over Catalonia gaining independence becoming the main reason they would veto Scotland. Whilst the Spanish Foreign Minister stated that Spain does not “welcome the disintegration of the UK,” he has confirmed that Spain would not veto Scotland joining the EU.

Despite the overall support within Scotland to become an EU member state, there are still many people who voted to leave who also want an independent Scotland. Using many of the same arguments that the Vote Leave campaigners did, that the EU is another body that exercises control over Scottish issues and regulations. Arguably the rules and regulations imposed by the EU are more beneficial than detrimental to Scotland. Currently the status of human rights within the UK is stable, as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is separate from those implemented by the EU. There was concern that the UK government wished to create a ‘British Bill of Rights’ to replace the current human rights act, however this is no longer the case as it has been decided that the constitutional focus will be better suited elsewhere after Brexit. Scotland benefits from EU funding for areas such as farming and scientific research, leaving the EU could be damaging to these industries. Many of the arguments for becoming an EU member state are the same arguments used by the Vote Remain campaign during the Brexit vote.

The arguments for Scottish independence are stronger after Brexit which may help the SNP to gain more support. Yet Brexit has also created a somewhat unstable and unknown political situation and another referendum would complicate matters further. Both the first independence referendum campaign and the Brexit campaign relied on uncertainties and estimations about the post-referendum result. The same can be said about a proposed second independence referendum, with all arguments for and against relying on facts and figures about what an independent Scotland could be. There are no certainties about any of the promises or fears that have been expressed regarding Scottish independence, and this is understandable as it is a scenario that neither Scotland nor the rest of the UK had seriously considered until the first referendum. The issue of Scottish independence and a second independence referendum will continue to be of central importance within Scotland, the UK and Europe. The debate and campaign will most likely increase in both support and protest as the process of the UK leaving the European Union begins. It is unknown what will happen if another independence referendum results in another no vote, will the SNP continue to push their independence agenda or accept the result?

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