Those of a nationalist bent may not like the question mark tagged on to the title of this blog, but despite the confident assertions of Alex Salmond’s White Paper, there are serious doubts about if, how and when an independent Scotland will take its place in the EU.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, made the legal position pretty clear in an interview at the end of 2012: If you breakaway from an EU member state, you effectively leave the Union and have to reapply for membership in the normal way.
Lawyers in Edinburgh disagree with his interpretation, pointing out that there is no mechanism within the EU treaties to strip EU citizenship from millions of people who have been enjoying its benefits for decades.
The Scottish Government’s position is that rather than lining up alongside the likes of Serbia and Montenegro and applying from the outside, Scotland’s membership can be negotiated from within through a simple treaty change. Technically that may turn out to be right, but they make it sound deceptively simple.
There are 2 significant problems: first that treaty change is precisely the thing that most European Governments are desperate to avoid.
Start discussing a new treaty and suddenly everyone wants something. And then everyone has to ratify it, sometimes with a referendum.
The second, and more serious roadblock, may be that new treaties (just like applications from new members) require unanimity. Any one of the 28 EU members can veto any new treaty, and there is one country that may have serious issues with allowing newly independent nations to move smoothly into a seat around the EU table: Spain.
Soon after Scotland votes on independence, Catalonia may do the same. The polls suggest that when offered the chance of independence within the EU, Catalan voters are clearly in favour. But if independence from Madrid means cutting ties with Brussels, they are far from certain.
Smoothing Scotland’s passage back to full membership may be the very last thing any Government in Spain is willing to do. But let’s look on the bright side and assume, as the White Paper does, that everyone agrees “a seamless transition is in the best interests...of all member states and the EU in general”.
What would the terms be?
Here the authors of the White Paper have placed their rose-tinted spectacles firmly on their noses and assumed that Scotland would be allowed to carry on exactly as the UK has been doing ever since we joined 40 years ago.
Have they not noticed that the rest of the EU absolutely loathes the way London has used its EU membership? “The principle of continuity of effect with respect to the terms and conditions of Scotland’s independent EU membership” they call it. In other words, all the benefits we have now in terms of the UK’s ‘semi-detached’ relationship with Brussels, we intend to keep.
The budget rebate? Yes, keep that. Join the Euro? Are you kidding? UK opt-outs from Home Affairs and Justice rules, and the Schengen passport free border rules? All of those please.
Have politicians in Edinburgh never heard the vitriol aimed at London over the UK’s treatment of Brussels as a pick’n’mix self-service buffet?
Across the channel, the phrase ‘Europe a la carte’ is never intended as a compliment. Opt outs are won before rules get made, by threatening to veto them if you don’t get your way. They do not come about later when you have no negotiating power.
And as for the rebate, there is nothing more resented in every EU capital, from Helsinki to Valetta, than the British rebate.
The position on the Euro is more complicated.
The formal position is that the Euro is the official currency of the EU, and that (except for the UK and Denmark who have opt-outs) all member states are obliged to work towards getting their economies into a position in which they can join the Euro. Scotland would undoubtedly be required to do the same.
But, at the same time, Alex Salmond rightly points out that Sweden enjoys an anomalous position, whereby it has been allowed to stay out of the ERM II, an essential stepping stone to Euro membership.
In this way Sweden is likely to stay out of the single currency for as long as it wishes.
The same would probably apply to an independent Scotland: formally on a path to Euro membership, but not making any progress along that path.
It is all very complicated, and in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote next year the busiest people are going to be the lawyers.
But the harsh reality for Edinburgh is that while an independent Scotland may well be allowed to take its place in the EU, it will do so on terms dictated by Brussels and not by Alex Salmond.