Pariah or Partner: Scotland and the European Union

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By Bryan Samuel

Scotland’s relationship with the European Union following a YES vote in September’s independence referendum continues to gain traction in the campaign.  This is hardly surprising since those arguing for the status quo appear convinced that EU membership is a weak point in YES Scotland’s case; and inconveniently for those advocating change, the issue will only be settled definitively through agreement after a YES vote.

Although of course it does not have to be this way.  The EU’s official position is that the commission is unable to comment on Scotland’s legal position until the UK government formally asked Brussels to do so.  Which of course the UK government has no intention of doing, since the present lack of clarity suits their purposes perfectly without boxing either the EU commission or the UK Government into any particular course of action in the event of a YES vote.

The result is a mutual ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ arrangement that suits both the UK government and the EU commission until after the referendum.

Where does this leave us?  As with much of the ‘debate’ so far, consideration of the EU membership issue has been based purely on contention and opinion.

The Better Together side hint that an independent Scotland would be banished friendless to the European wilderness, an uncouth semi-pariah, expelled and unwelcome from all the desirable international alliances and organisations, required to redevelop all of its relationships from scratch.  While YES Scotland predicts a relatively untroubled transition to full membership of the international community.

Naturally both camps are keen to saturate the discussion with ‘expert’ legal and political testimony that supports their case, while simultaneously dismissing opinion that does not point toward their desired outcome; so far, so depressing for those paying attention to the spectacle.

It seems curious that the debate has not appeared to consider historical precedent at all so far.  Since at least here there are some indisputable facts and although Scotland’s relationship with the EU after a YES vote would be in some respects novel, there are a couple of historical examples with strong similarities.

In 1962 Algeria gained independence from France and in 1985 Greenland seceded from Denmark while both France and Denmark were members of the EU’s predecessor organisations, the European Communities (EC) and European Economic Community (EEC) respectively.  The notable difference in each case was that the newly ‘separate’ Algeria wanted to leave the EC and Greenland desired an exit from the EEC after voting on the issue in a referendum.

So if the logic of those arguing against the likelihood of an independent Scotland’s smooth transition to full EU membership holds, then surely both Algeria and Greenland would have been rapidly cast adrift, forced to negotiate terms from outside the brotherhood of European nations as a price for their ‘separation’, particularly since neither territory is even geographically in Europe?

Well no, Algeria and Greenland had both to negotiate their exits from inside the organisation and the resulting agreements required special treaties agreed by all member states to enact.  So the obvious question is, if Algeria and Greenland wanted to leave, but weren’t able to do so without negotiating terms first; why would an independent Scotland be forced to depart and negotiate its way back in, if it wanted to stay?

Throughout the history of the European Union unexpected events have occurred, some of which have forced it to make provision outside the scope of its treaties and constitution; whether it is the succession of Algeria and Greenland; the Euro crisis; German reunification; social chapter opt outs; or multiple, inconvenient Irish and Danish referendum results; the response has been similarly pragmatic with the notable absence of any knee jerk reaction.

The EU may not be noted for its rapid response to crisis, but it does generally get there in the end with a least-worst practical compromise that all parties can live with.  It seems bizarre to argue that an independent Scotland’s situation would be any different.

Do members of Better Together really believe that Scotland would be expelled from the EU, risking the possibility that Scots living abroad and other EU nationals presently working and studying in Scotland would have to return home; that Scottish citizens would no longer be welcome in Mediterranean resorts; that Spanish owned fishing boats would no longer have access to Scottish waters?

I think not, there is certainly no provision in any EU treaty or law for this to happen.  More than likely people on the ground would notice no practical difference to the present situation, while the final terms of Scotland’s membership were discussed and agreed.  Scots would retain their European citizenship with the current benefits and obligations while high-level issues that have minimal impact on day-to-day lives, such as the final number of Scottish MEPs and EU commissioners were discussed and agreed.

Scotland has already been subject to and compliant with EU law for forty years.  It seems counter intuitive and contrary the precedents of EU history to suggest that a reasonable, practical solution that minimises disruption would not be found for Scotland’s EU membership, in the event of a YES vote.