Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

SNP Leaders Need To Come Clean About Scottish EU Membership

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Even after the Scottish Government was forced to release documents showing its EU pathway doesn’t work, it still maintains the myth of easy entry. This dishonesty is corrosive to the independence cause, argues Jonathon Shafi.

This is an adapted version of a post from the Independence Captured newsletter.

On the face of it, a discussion about the technicalities of how an independent Scotland might join the European Union is about as dry as it comes. Yet it quite emphatically exposes the dearth of intellectual ballast in the official prospectus and exposes the key fronts which continue to confound a party unwilling to “grasp the thistle” on the big issues. This is doubly problematic given Scotland’s place within the EU has become so intertwined with the idea of independence. The lack of candour and coherence on the question undermines the credibility of the project and strips it of meaning beyond slogans. At the same time, the lack of informed debate on these matters helps to perpetuate the constitutional deep freeze which permeates all national life. That must thaw if the country is to move beyond the failings of a political leadership who have been allowed to trade on a platform, that while vacuous, has served the purposes of electoral opportunism.

Unfortunately, this work requires a degree of repetition. Sometimes you have to badger away at a single point for quite a long time. Independence Captured has been committed to this approach on the question of sterlingisation, as presented in the Growth Commission and the latest independence white paper on economics. This plan rules out an independent currency and Scottish central bank for an indefinite period. As the Aquis Communinitaire – the accumulated legislation, legal acts and court decisions that constitute the body of EU law – clearly states: “Economic and monetary policy contains specific rules requiring the independence of central banks in member states.” Scotland could not, therefore, join the EU without first having its own banking institutions and an independent currency. 

It is written in black and white in an official Scottish Government report detailing the process. Not in the versions that come with glossy brochures, spin-doctored sound bites and breezily narrated social media animations, but in the private advice to government ministers related to ascension timescales which have been kept hidden from the Scottish public. The documentation is now available thanks to a Freedom of Information request. This was not a simple process. It took direct intervention from the Scottish Information Commissioner who said that it was in the “public interest,” that voters should know, “the details of analysis conducted to determine the likely timescales involved in an independent Scotland re-joining the EU.” Scottish ministers were even found to have broken transparency rules after failing to publish the analysis. 

The paper reveals that the length of the time between independence and EU membership is determined by the need for an independent currency:

In another section, the report states: “There may be areas in which Scotland, upon independence, is not ready to take on the full requirements of EU membership. Key among those is the currency question.” Headline writers took the overall analysis to suggest that it would take 8 years to join. But even that is not entirely accurate. The process could only credibly begin after Scotland had established its own currency. By the SNP’s admission the period without a central bank after “independence day” has no timeline, given it would be subject to a variety of stringent tests. Yet none of this seems to matter. Humza Yousaf can quite happily say an independent Scotland will “keep the pound” as he did on Holyrood Sources without a hint of what this might mean for EU membership.

What does it matter, you might ask? After all, none of this is going to be put to the acid test for the foreseeable future. But supporters of independence should not expect the case to be this flimsy nearly a decade on from 2014. It is arguably weaker now than it was then. Beyond constitutional divisions, it speaks volumes as to the lack of public interrogation of the Scottish governing class. 

Where there is real scrutiny, things rapidly fall apart. You can decide for yourself if the following responses from the former First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, are based on ignorance or deceit. In an interview with Andrew Neil, running up to the 2019 general election, she claimed that an independent Scotland could join the EU “relatively quickly” and refuted the fact this would first require the country to have an independently-run central bank and currency. “It is not true to say we would have had to have established an independent currency before joining the European Union,” she said, apparently unaware of the now-disclosed ministerial advice.

When you boil it down and the “leave a light on for Scotland” mantra evaporates into thin air, there is very little left. Moreover, because one part of the prospectus is so badly conceived, it bleeds into all other sections. Take the latest white paper on “Citizenship in an Independent Scotland.” Large sections of this document are predicated on EU membership. It just doesn’t add up.

If we have learned one thing from recent times it is surely that no matter the severity of the crisis that may engulf the British state, such events don’t automatically translate to a rise in support for independence. A popular and compelling case is required. This has been absent in campaigning terms, just as it has been bereft of meaningful content. 

Does the EU want Scotland at all?

It is widely accepted that Scotland’s membership of the EU shall be plain sailing assuming it meets the full criteria. But it is worth exploring this proposition a little more critically. The EU is not, for instance, supportive of Catalan civic rights in relation to self-determination. Richard Youngs of Carnegie Europe wrote perceptively on the EU’s attitude at the height of the referendum crisis in Catalonia: “The desire of citizens to bring democratic accountability back down to local or community level is routinely belittled. Analysts commonly hold it to be synonymous with nationalism, nativism, or populism. But this is a dangerous simplification that misses the many benign elements of such burgeoning local politics.” Dangerous it may be, but this is an accurate account of the prevailing political culture and ideological disposition in Brussels. 

Even if Scotland were to become equipped with the necessary infrastructure, there is no guarantee the European Commission will look upon the case generously. It will consider relations with London carefully. The City is a key artery in the global system and Britain hosts the largest financial sector in Europe. It may be a post-Empire state, but its nuclear capabilities remain central to the NATO alliance, as outlined in the recent Vilnius Summit Communiqué. The major geopolitical questions of the era will come into the frame, as will the state of UK/EU relations which continue to evolve.

The provocation here is to suggest the EU prefers to stabilise its dealings with the UK, rather than exacerbate tensions. To move in the direction of slow but strategic reintegration as part of an ongoing process of negotiation. Already there are key talks over infrastructure projects, such as the building of new energy interconnectors between the UK and the European mainland. As Joël Reland, a Research Associate at UK in a Changing Europe, explains: “These projects will require new shared regulatory oversight, based either on updating the terms of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), or building a wider framework derived from it.”

Such initiatives are laying the foundations for the 2025 renegotiation of the TCA, where we can expect more in the way of convergence rather than divergence. “The signing of the TCA was seen as a sign that Brexit was finally done,” writes Relans, “yet, in reality, the work of managing the UK’s relations with the EU never stops.” The highest echelons of the EU are far more concerned with this than they are in entertaining or animating the break up of the UK. 

This is the kind of realpolitik which any movement for Scottish independence must navigate. Problematically, the slightest degree of conflict with establishment institutions is not something the SNP are willing to tolerate. Nicola Sturgeon recently said she regretted not taking Scotland to independence. But this regret was always more palatable than engaging the series of confrontations necessarily bound up with such a project. What we have, then, is a party so lacking in confidence in its founding mission that it is reduced to an inevitably fruitless permission-seeking exercise: from the British state; from the Bank of England; from the European Union; from NATO. 

Stuck in this rut, the party leadership must recapitulate a propagandist approach which seeks to connect the large section of Scottish society who favour independence with voting SNP at the ballot box. But be under no illusions. There is no back room strategy at play which might translate the abstractions this process relies on into reality. And everyone knows it. 

Enjoy reading this article?
Join our mailing list
Subscribe now