When the results of the 2016 EU membership referendum came in, Nicola Sturgeon took to the airwaves to denounce the fact that while the rest of the UK had voted to Leave, Scottish voters had not. While this fact has been consistently used to make a democratic case for independence, the SNP policy on the EU has evolved multiple times: from “special status”, to Single Market membership, to “Stop Brexit”. As Britain has now left the EU, this process of evolution has merged the two questions, with the main SNP slogan now being “an independent European nation”: advocating that an independent Scotland would re-join the European Union.
On the night that Brexit came into effect, the attitude shown by the SNP and much of the wider independence movement was not so much one of sorrow, but confidence for the future. Europe would “leave a light on” for Scotland to return one day.
This confidence is fed by the regular commentary from EU officials expressing support and sympathy for Scotland. Shortly before the 31st of January, ex-President of the European Council Donald Tusk said he “felt Scottish” and had empathy for the pro-EU majority among Scottish voters. It does not take long to look through the pro-independence press and find other examples of MEPs practically confirming this feeling that Scotland is destined to be a part of the EU.
Donald Tusk is a serious man, however, and doesn’t let his feelings get the better of him. He was formerly the chief cog in the EU machine, not just an accessory like those multitudes of MEPs, and so his comments came with the important caveat that Scotland would have to follow the normal procedures to join the European Union.
AN INDEPENDENT EU NATION
Scotland has no automatic right to join the European Union – neither as a part of a former member, nor as a small country off the coast of the Continent, nor as a country with generally high levels of support for the EU. These things certainly help Scotland’s case, but as with any other country access to the exclusive EU club has to be earned.
While the SNP leadership are keen to make the process seem like a done deal, accession to the EU is not so straightforward. To begin, Scotland would have to actually be an independent country. Not just one that has just voted to be independent, but one with its own formally independent state.
Disentangling over 300 years of social, economic and political union with the rest of Britain would have to at least be near completion before Scotland could become a candidate member of the EU. This process would likely be even more complicated than Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and would take place in the context of the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU, whatever it may be.
Once formal independence has been achieved – and only via the legal, constitutional limits that Sturgeon insists the movement will follow – then the lengthy membership negotiations begin. This is estimated to take up to another five years after Scotland has left the UK, with the whole process taking the better part of a decade after Scotland votes to be an independent country.
The Scottish Government will have a number of difficult issues to negotiate with the EU, and from the standpoint of a “third country” – a legal stranger to the EU and its members – would be in a weak position.
The problem of the border has already been raised, with the First Minister stating that she has to be “honest” about the prospect of a hard border between Scotland and England. For this Sturgeon blames the British Government’s Brexit policy, but there is more than one party to a negotiation. As we saw with the crisis over the Northern Irish border, the backstop, physical infrastructure etc, it is ultimately an EU border that is being imposed with the EU’s customs enforcement at stake. Any request for special consideration from the Scottish Government would likely be seen negatively, after the experience of Brexit and Northern Ireland.
Another former European Council President, Herman Van Rompuy, has also welcomed the idea of an independent Scotland joining the EU but warned that there will be no “special treatment”. In particular, he highlights the issue of currency. Many pro-indy activists will groan, but a “good faith” commitment to adopting the Euro is one of the criteria for countries to join the European Union.
The SNP Growth Commission plan of Sterlingisation and then the eventual launch of an independent Scottish currency would contradict what the EU wants from a candidate member. The Scottish Government is well aware of this fact, with one of its own advisors Fabian Zuleeg authoring a report on the subject for Van Rompuy’s European Policy Centre think-tank!
There are other issues which may crop up in the negotiations which are difficult to speculate on, such as the Common Fisheries Policy which is unpopular in Scottish fishing communities, etc. The point is that joining the EU will not be a return to the pre-Brexit status quo. In membership negotiations Scotland would have to concede a lot and not make requests for opt-outs or special arrangements, while the EU has to concede nothing.
The EU itself has moved on since 2016, with a debate about enlargement and the future stability of Europe leading France to veto North Macedonia’s accession. This is despite the years of reforms dictated by the EU, including even changing the name of the country.
Among the so-called “reforms” that the EU requires of candidate countries is “budgetary discipline”. This is the point where Scotland’s budget deficit and national debt become an issue. While some pro-independence fact-checkers have labelled it as “mostly false” that Scotland would have to cut its deficit down from 7-8% of GDP to the EU’s required 3%, it is in fact largely true. While not being a direct requirement for membership, a perceived lack of “budgetary discipline” on the part of a candidate country could scupper their accession. Even if it didn’t, the fact remains that the 3% target is binding on full members of the EU as well.
There should be no confusion whatsoever, reducing Scotland’s deficit to 3% means austerity – the kind advocated by the Growth Commission report and subsequently rejected by the rank-and-file of the independence movement.
To fall outside of the EU’s budgetary targets for too long incurs the wrath of the “Excessive Deficit Procedure”. This can range from “helpful” suggestions such as cuts to pensions and the public sector to outright threats of sanctions or withholding of EU funds. This was the fate of Croatia after it joined the EU with a slightly high deficit of 5.3%. The Social Democrat-led government enforced cuts to healthcare, pensions, subsidies, education, as well as increasing VAT, taxes on fuel etc. With rising unemployment and falling living standards as a result, the allure of the EU soon faded.
Don’t think it couldn’t happen to Scotland. With an economy slightly smaller than Greece – another country whose working class has suffered heavily at the hands of the EU’s fiscal demands – and as a new applicant, Scotland’s political weight in the EU would be limited. Moreover, with another economic crisis on the cards within the next 5 years, the capitalist class’ demand for austerity will be irresistible as the future of the EU itself is thrown into doubt. None of the fundamental problems of indebtedness have been resolved since the last crisis, which exposed the fault lines that undermine the economic basis of European integration.
THE CLASS QUESTION
None of this should be read as an argument against Scottish Independence, but as against the kind of independent Scotland that would join the EU. The European Union is a class organisation of the bourgeoisie that constitutionally commits its members to capitalism. It allows no alternative.
The basic requirements for membership of the EU – the Copenhagen Criteria and the myriad of laws and regulations, the “acquis” – are guarantees that the free market economy and the bourgeois state, the government of the rich, cannot be challenged. They ensure that an independent Scotland would not stray from the “neoliberal” capitalist policies that predominate in every European country, including the United Kingdom.
The SNP slogan that Scotland will be an “independent European nation” should thus not be seen as a slogan of change, but as a re-insertion of Scotland into the failed status quo. The corrupt and out-of-touch rule of the British ruling class is not something unique to the United Kingdom. It is the prevailing social and economic order all over Europe and the world: capitalism.
As the prospect of a second independence referendum once again recedes into the future under the leadership of Sturgeon et al, the official case for independence moves further and further away from what won over millions of working class people in 2014. The question of independence is not going away, but the wider movement must clarify its perspective, independent of the SNP leadership.