For an independent Scotland, no easy path to EU membership

No European Union country has ever split from another and reapplied for membership. Scotland's separatists say they want to leave the UK and still belong to the EU. 

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
A "Yes" campaign flag flies from a derelict cottage on the Island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides Sept. 16, 2014. The referendum on Scottish independence will take place on Sept. 18, when Scotland will vote whether or not to end the 307-year-old union with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Peaceful and prosperous, an independent Scotland would seem a shoo-in for European Union membership.

But if Scots vote “Yes” on Thursday, it’s unclear how seamlessly it could rejoin the 28-member bloc and, more contentiously, on what terms.

Brussels has not publicly taken a position on Scotland's referendum. While the EU is wary of membership enlargement overall, Scots argue that they've belonged since 1973, when the United Kingdom joined. What’s more, Scots favor the EU, unlike the Euroskeptics in the ascendancy across the border in England. 

But some member states might resist Scotland’s accession to the bloc because of their own concerns of secession. And if Scots seek the “opt-outs” that it currently enjoys because it belongs to the UK – such as keeping its own currency – the negotiating process could be fraught with uncertainties. 

Although there are partial precedents for countries that have left the bloc or expanded – like Greenland’s exit or East Germany’s entrance – no EU country has ever split from another and reapplied for membership. 

“On the one hand it should be very easy, and on the other very complicated,” says Sonia Piedrafita, a research fellow in the politics and institutions division at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “Nothing is crystal clear.” 

There is consensus across Europe that if Scotland breaks away it would be outside the EU and need to re-apply. Scottish nationalists argue that their state would be seen as a member that wants to renegotiate their relationship with the EU and that the process would be fast-tracked in as little as 18 months.

But critics warn that Scotland would face a lengthy process like any other brand new member. Moreover, once it applies, all 28 members of the union have to agree to accept their accession. No one is sure whether countries with their own independence movements, like Spain, would oppose Scotland’s membership. 

If Scotland is granted membership, the length of negotiations could depend on what the new nation actually seeks from the organization. When the UK signed the Maastricht Treaty that led to the single currency in 1992, it was able to keep the pound, as Scotland wants to do. But the current treaty specifies that all new members must eventually embrace the euro as their currency. If Scotland seeks an opt-out, other countries could demand that their positions are renegotiated. 

Academics and analysts are just as split as the Scottish electorate on how painstaking the process would be. John Kerr, chairman of the Center for European Reform in London, warns that “the EU would be in uncharted waters” in a July paper. However, Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, professor at Oxford University, writes that the democracy-promoting EU would undermine its own credibility if it were to “dispossess Scots of their acquired rights and EU citizenship as a result of Scotland using the democratic right to vote for independence.” 

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