By G.A.Ponsonby and Bob Duncan
A split has emerged amongst Unionist parties over the Barroso EU row after Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie denied claiming that an independent Scotland would be forced out of the European Union.
Speaking on Newsnight Scotland the Lib Dem MSP appeared to distance himself from Unionist claims that an independent Scotland would be expelled from the EU and forced to re-apply.
Mr Rennie’s comments followed a ministerial statement given to the Scottish Parliament by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in which she insisted that an independent Scotland would carry out post referendum negotiations with the EU whilst still a full member.
Mr Rennie said he agreed with the SNP MSP who had earlier told the Holyrood chamber that Scotland’s EU membership was not simply down to legal interpretation.
Speaking on BBC Scotland’s Newsnight Scotland programme, he said: “It’s not just about the legal issues, it’s about the politics as well.”
Mr Rennie then added: “Nobody is saying we are going to be thrown out of the European Union, that’s not what we are saying.”
The Lib Dem MSP also conceded that, given a yes vote in the referendum, that the SNP’s plan to retain the pound was sensible and that the rest of the UK would be considered ‘partners’.
The Scottish Lib Dem leader said that although he did not favour independence, that the Lib Dems would adopt the pound over the euro, saying: “We would have to work with the United Kingdom to try to form alliances,”
He added: “We will work with our partners in the United Kingdom, who we’ve worked with before”.
His comments will be seen by some as signs of a split amongst Unionist parties at Holyrood who have, until now, appeared unified in their attacks on SNP claims that Scotland would continue as an EU member throughout negotiations following a Yes vote in the referendum.
Speaking yesterday afternoon, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had defended the Scottish government’s belief that an independent Scotland would remain within the European Union.
Her statement followed general remarks made by the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, in a BBC interview, when he stated that he believed a ‘new state’ would have to reapply for EU membership.
Although the EC President stressed he was not referring specifically to Scotland, opponents of independence have seized on the comments as proof that Scotland would be expelled from the EU following a Yes vote and forced to re-apply to join the European Union.
Giving a ministerial statement to the Scottish parliament, Ms Sturgeon, who is seeking talks with Mr Barroso, said the Scottish government would negotiate the terms of an independent Scotland’s EU membership between a Yes vote in 2014 and the onset of independence in 2016.
The Scottish government has pointed out that a Yes vote will be followed by a period of negotiation with Westminster before independence is officially ratified. This period, they say, would see parallel negotiations take place between both parties and the European Commission.
Ms Sturgeon insisted that it is inconceivable that the EU would wish to expel a country which has 90 per cent of the EU’s oil reserves, vast renewables potential and significant fishing waters which are critical to fishermen from existing EU members.
Dismissing claims that Mr Barroso had the power to enforce his opinion and remove an independent Scotland’s EU membership, she said: “The European Commission, however important, is not the final arbiter of these matters,” continuing, “Mr Barroso’s statements do not constitute a ‘ruling’, as some have suggested.
“Nor does the Commission even claim to be specifically addressing the particular situation of Scotland.”
She continued: “This government believes that Scotland does benefit from EU membership, and that the EU benefits – enormously – from having Scotland as a member.
“It’s also our view that Scotland’s interests would be better represented in the EU by an independent Scottish government, with a seat at the top table, able to speak up for our national interests without having to seek the approval of UK ministers, and a government able to work closely and constructively with partners – across the EU and across these islands – to advance our shared interests.”
Ms Sturgeon added: “Scotland’s vast assets – fishing, oil and gas, renewables; our value as an export market to other member states; our education system enjoyed by thousands of EU students every year; and our status as home to tens of thousands of EU citizens, mean that the economic, social and political interests of the EU would be best served by Scotland remaining in continuous membership”.
Unionist opposition parties attacked Ms Sturgeon’s statement with Labour’s Patricia Ferguson saying the SNP view that Scotland would continue within the EU was ‘mere assertion’ and asked what discussions she had had with the 27 countries in the EU.
Ms Sturgeon responded by saying that she looked forward to discussing the ‘unanswerable’ case for Scottish independence with many people across the EU and even, if they are willing, in the UK government.
Responding to questions from Newsnet Scotland, a spokesman for Mr Barroso confirmed that the EC President’s Office would be responding to the Deputy First Minister “in due course”.