Sunday 26. September 2021
#155 - December 2012


The referendum on Scottish independence and EU Membership


The UK Government accepted that the question of Scottish independence should be a question for the people of Scotland to determine.


In the national elections of May 2011 the Scottish National Party (SNP) won an overall majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP's 2011 manifesto included the following commitment to a referendum on independence: "Independence will only happen when the people in Scotland vote for it … We think the people of Scotland should decide our nation's future in a democratic referendum … We will, therefore, bring forward our Referendum Bill in this next Parliament. A yes vote will mean Scotland becomes an independent nation …"


The UK Government accepted that the question of Scottish independence should be a question for the people of Scotland to determine. In their preface to Scotland's Constitutional Future, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister wrote that: "We want to keep the United Kingdom together. But we recognise that the Scottish Government holds the opposite view … We will not stand in the way of a referendum on independence: the future of Scotland's place within the United Kingdom is for people in Scotland to vote on."


This October, after eight months of intense negotiations, a thirty-clause agreement was signed by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron. The agreement, dubbed the “Edinburgh Agreement” gives to the Scottish parliament the temporary legal power to stage a single-question referendum on Scottish independence whilst widening the franchise to include 16 and 17 year olds. Although Scotland’s First Minister has not yet announced the date of the referendum, it is expected that the referendum will be held in October 2014. (The UK’s next general election must take place before May 2015.)

There is now both a mandate and a legal agreement for the referendum on Scottish independence. Its date is clear and the wording of the question agreed. The focus of political discussion shifts therefore to the relationship between a newly independent Scotland and the European Union should Scotland vote for independence. (Further considerations such as the relationship between a newly independent Scotland and the remainder of the United Kingdom, and whether Scotland would adopt the Euro, are beyond the scope of this article.)

There is no precedent for a newly-separate part of an EU Member State becoming independent. In the case of Scotland, the main discussion pertains to whether Scotland would negotiate as a de facto EU member and its accession be fast-tracked, or whether the normal accession procedure would be followed.


There was in fact much speculation as to whether a newly independent Scotland would consider a Norwegian-style arrangement: assuming membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA). It became quickly apparent that Scotland would not accept that under this arrangement its voice would be absent from important discussions relating to the very legislation which it would have to implement.

Whereas the Scottish Government would favour EU membership, it seems clear that Scotland would not be granted fast-track accession and would therefore be treated as a new candidate country. As stipulated in Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union, the unanimous approval of the Council is required to grant such membership. Furthermore, the accession agreement must be ratified by each member state, according to its constitutional requirements. Spain, for example would almost certainly decline to ratify a Scottish accession agreement.

Had Scotland been allowed to negotiate terms as a de facto member of the EU or had its accession been fast-tracked, it was widely feared that the precedent could embolden separatist movements. For several member states this precedent would seem dangerous, as fragmentation is for them contrary to the very essence of the European project.


Stephen N. Rooney

Jesuit European Social Centre

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