Will the EU Change Sides?

Nicola Sturgeon is keen to talks with the leadership of the EU, with a view to keeping Scotland in the EU after the impending Brexit, something that is probably only possible if Scotland becomes an independent country.

 We will also be seeking direct discussions with the EU institutions and its member states, including the earliest possible meeting with the President of the European Commission. (http://www.snp.org/statement_on_euref_result_and_it_s_implications_for_scotland)

At this stage, we cannot take it for granted that Westminster will not seek to prevent an independence referendum being held, especially given the ongoing power struggles within both the Tory and Labour parties. Nor, without an equivalent of the Edinburgh Agreement, can we take it for granted that, if Scotland votes for independence, the UK Government will accept the result and start negotiations with the Scottish Government. The attitude of the EU towards the prospect of Scottish independence could therefore be of great importance.

Prior to the 2014 referendum, what the EU said, or did not say, was generally unhelpful towards the Yes campaign. (This was exacerbated by the media mostly failing to report anything said by people associated with the EU that was at all favourable towards Yes.) There were two obvious reasons for this.

Firstly, there was already the possibility of a Brexit referendum, which is clearly something that the EU leadership would have preferred to avoid. They would therefore have been trying to avoid antagonising the UK Government. They were able to avoid giving any opinion on whether an independent Scotland would have been able to remain part of the EU, by relying on EU rules which said such an opinion only had to be given if requested by the government of the relevant member state, i.e. the UK. Now that the EU has clearly accepted that Brexit will happen, they no longer have to worry about the feelings of the UK Government.

Secondly, some countries (notably Spain) were worried that Scottish independence would set a precedent, particularly if Scotland were allowed to become a member state of the EU, which would encourage secessionist movements within their own countries. However, if Scotland secedes from the UK in order to avoid being dragged out of the EU against the wishes of a majority of its people, this cannot be seen as a precedent for Catalan independence unless Spain decides to leave the EU.

On the other side of the equation, there are two reasons why the EU may be expected to support Scottish independence in the present circumstances. The EU is an expansionist organisation; it seems happy to accept as a member any country which meets the requirements of the acquis communautaire, the accumulated body of EU law. After the reunification of Germany, the former East Germany was absorbed into the EEC (which became the EU in 1993) with very little fuss. It would be astonishing if the EU were reluctant to have Scotland, with its strategic position and oil reserves, as a member.

The EU will want to discourage other countries from leaving, or threatening to do so in an attempt to secure better deals for themselves, but they will want to do so without appearing vindictive towards the UK. By supporting the right of the Scottish people to hold another independence referendum, and then to become independent if they so choose, the EU would be standing up for democracy and self-determination, a perfectly respectable stance. At the same time, they would be sending an implied message to restive member states – leave the EU and your country might just fall apart.

Given that the UK Government will have to negotiate the best possible leaving agreement with the EU, the EU will be in a position to put considerable pressure on the UK to permit a referendum and to honour its result. Hence, I am reasonably optimistic that we shall get a second independence referendum and then independence. However, I do not trust Westminster and so, if I were in Nicola’s position, I would be very tempted to ask any EU leaders to whom I might talk one question – if the UK Government blocks a Scottish independence referendum, or refuses to recognise a vote for independence, will they uphold the democratic right of the Scottish people to choose to remain in the EU, even if that means supporting a unilateral declaration of independence by the Scottish Government?

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