Where now for Scotland?

In an historic and stirring address to Seanad Éireann this week, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon refused to set out a timeline for when she might ask the Scottish people to vote once again on Independence.

She repeated her view that the Scottish people had not voted to stay within a United Kingdon outside of the European Union and that the Scottish people’s decision to overwhelming vote in favour of remaining in the EU could not be ignored.

Senator Richmond meeting with FMS Sturgeon following her address to Seanad Éireann
Senator Richmond meeting with FMS Sturgeon following her address to Seanad Éireann

Immediately after the results of the Brexit Referendum became known, many people questioned if this vote would lead to another vote on Independence and if the result would be different this time. Opinion polls taken soon after the Brexit vote pointed to a strong chance that, if asked again, the Scots this time would overwhelmingly vote in favour of Independence.

However, would Independence automatically lead to remaining within the EU or even a fast accession process? At the time of the Scottish Independence Referendum, then European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barrosso was quick to rule out this possibility.

At the first European Council meeting following the Brexit vote, our Taoiseach raised the status of Scotland as well as the unique position of Ireland and Northern Ireland. While reassuring comments have been issued about Northern Ireland, many other EU leaders haven’t been as quick to engage in the matter of Scotland.

The issue is complex and has potentially large reprecussions around Europe. The most obvious country with concerns would be Spain where both Catalonia and the Basque region have long sought, often violently, for their sovereign independence, indeed MEPs from the Catalan region have long spoken of their desire to see an Independent Catalonia join the EU.

In Belgium, the fractious regionalisation and multi layers of government struggle to keep a country made up of three distinct people together. The parties pushing greater Flemish independence dominate in the region of Flanders and have a strong presence in the regional and federal parliaments.

In Italy there is issues of German speaking South Tyrol, in Finland there are prominent Russian and Swedish minorities, in Romania there is a dedicated Hungarian party and there is a plethora of small parties seeking independence for regions in France and Germany such as for Brittany or Bavaria.

Many of these parties or groups sit in the European Free Alliance alongside First Minister Sturgeon’s SNP.

But if it were to come to pass, how would an Independent Scotland engage with or even join the EU?

We’re in unchartered territory as no Member State has ever left the EU before, the closest thing was when Greenland gained independence from Denmark.

It seems increasingly clear that an Independent Scotland would have to apply fresh if they want to remain in or rejoin the EU.

There is no set time line to European Accession but a candidate country must fulfil what is known as the Copenhagen Criteria. In operation since 1993, the criteria require that a state has the institutions to preserve democratic governance and human rights, has a functioning market economy, and accepts the obligations and intent of the EU.

The last country to join the EU was Croatia in 2013, it first applied to join in 2003. When Ireland first applied to join the then EEC in 1961, our application was rapidly rejected as the UK had not also applied.

Our second application in 1970 progressed much more smoothly and was agreed in 1972 with Ireland joining the EEC in 1973 along with the UK and Denmark.

As it stands there are currently five applicant countries seeking to join the EU: Albania; the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; Montenegro; Serbia and Turkey although in the case of Turkey, the European Parliament has recently voted to suspend this process in light of domestic activities.

Crucially for a potential independent Scottish application, aside from fulfilling the Copenhagen Criteria, an application must also be approved by all existing EU member states. Given the situations I’ve already laid out in countries such as Spain, such an application could be problematic.

In the immediate aftermath it may be emotionally appealing to fast track thoughts of an independent Scotland joining the EU but in reality such a prospect could be a long way off.

The remaining 27 EU member states have agreed to not negotiate bilaterally with the UK and to hold off any negotiations until the UK invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and notifies the European Commission of its decision to leave the EU.

From an Irish perspective, we have extremely warm relations with Scotland. The Irish consulate has recently expanded in Edinburgh whilst the Scottish government has opened an office this year in Dublin.

Ireland and Scotland have a shared history, culture, language and deep familial ties. My own mother was a Graham with a proud Ulster Scots heritage that we can trace back to an ancestor who was a captain in William Wallace’s army at the Battle of Falkirk.

However, the Irish government has agreed to the uniform position of no unilateral negotiations whilst prioritising the complicated situation of Northern Ireland, the desire to retain the common travel agreement that dates to 1922, the rights of Irish citizens in the UK and the need to maintain the most favourable trading relationship between the EU and the UK.

The Scottish situation is an interesting one but it remains a hypothetical scenario. The First Minister’s address to the Seanad was both historic and welcome. We must continue our close friendship but the defining nature of that will not be written for some time yet.


Neale Richmond is the government  spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Eireann.