Independence in the EU in the Covid Era: Prospects for Scotland

Kirsty Hughes, 2019
Picture Credit: Kirsty Hughes

Scotland’s independence debate has not been hitting the headlines much during the Covid-19 crisis. But nor has it gone away. And for now, public opinion appears to be more or less where it was on the independence question – split roughly 50:50 with a majority of younger voters (under 50 or 55 years old depending on the poll) favouring independence. This could, of course, change substantially as the Covid crisis develops economically, politically and in public health terms in the coming months.

Independence, if it happened in the coming years, will take place in a transformed post-Corona Europe and world. Meanwhile, at UK level, it’s clear that the government is determinedly returning to its worst, aggressive Brexiter rhetoric as the UK-EU talks on the future relationship falter.

Where does all this leave the prospects, and policy, of independence in a much altered EU?

The EU in the Covid-19 Crisis

At one level, it could be said little has changed for states who wish to join the European Union. Any European state can apply to join – as the treaties say and as Commission president Ursula von der Leyen repeated this week. Nor, so far, does the EU look more reluctant to expand. At the start of May, the EU had a video summit with the western Balkan countries – an enlargement summit in all but name. And France has stepped back – with some amendments to the enlargement process – from delaying accession, as it had done last autumn in the case of North Macedonia and Albania.

But the EU is facing big challenges in continuing to tackle Covid-19 and its wide fall-out – on borders, the single market, on global geopolitics, on the eurozone and, more broadly, on solidarity and strategy within the EU27. Where the EU will be in one or two years’ time is an open question.

Yet the big Merkel-Macron proposal, earlier this week, of a €500 billion coronavirus recovery fund is potentially a game-changer. It’s a major political shift from Merkel and in announcing it she underlined the importance of the EU moving forward politically in such turbulent times: “The EU must act together, the nation state has no chance if it acts on its own”, she said.

Doubtful statements were rapidly issued from the so-called frugal four – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden (notably two of these not even in the eurozone). But a big move from the Franco-German tandem is not one to be underestimated. It goes along with a clear shift in thinking towards protecting and creating ‘European champions’ – albeit there are dividing lines in the EU on the risks of moving in a potentially more interventionist or even protectionist direction. And, at the same time, the Green European Deal has not been abandoned – though how climate action and Covid recovery will intertwine remains a major policy issue for the coming months and years.

This is not a united EU, re-energised in the face of crisis, taking big political steps forward – or not yet. There are divisions over Covid, over support for recovery, over how to create a more geo-political Europe, over tackling climate change – and populist parties have not disappeared nor has the creaking sound of authoritarianism coming from Hungary and Poland. But if Merkel and Macron can step up in the coming year – ahead of the German federal elections in autumn 2021 – then there is a prospect of the EU coming through the crisis in better shape than might have been imagined.

An Independent Scotland in the EU?

Where does this leave the prospects for an independent Scotland joining the EU as an independent state? Much of the politics, for now, looks the same. If Scotland were to choose independence through a constitutionally and legally valid process, then it would be eligible to apply to join the EU.

How Scotland gets to that position is, of course, not clear – with the UK government refusing another independence referendum. Suggestions that testing the legality of an advisory referendum could be a way forward would be likely to ruffle feathers and cause concern in Brussels – if London and Edinburgh are in conflict and not agreed on the constitutional way ahead. Certainly, UK and Scottish political dynamics may well change post-Covid, through the economic recession and after the Holyrood elections in May 2021. But the EU’s concerns about an agreed process will not disappear.

And the accession steps to go through have not altered. After an application, the Commission would assess whether and how far Scotland meets the so-called ‘Copenhagen criteria’ – on democracy, a functioning market economy and ability to take on the EU’s laws – and it would then be up to the European Council to decide at unanimity whether to open talks.

Tricky issues such as meeting the EU’s fiscal criteria on debt and deficit will not have gone away. Certainly, in the post-Corona world, EU member states will have, to varying extents, substantially increased their debt to GDP ratios. But this is not expected to translate into any change in the treaty criteria on debt and deficit – even if it might mean more tolerance for higher debt levels as long as these were on a sustained downwards path. And the EU may be tougher on those applying to join than those who are already member states. After all, in the difficult economic times ahead, the EU will not want to bring in too fast any accession country whose economic situation does not look fairly robust. Nonetheless, if Scotland had not diverged too far from EU laws, and was not in an economically unstable state, then a 4-5 year accession time horizon is still feasible (as has been argued in a number of Scottish Centre on European Relations’ reports).

Debates over an independent Scotland’s border with the rest of the UK will recur too. Wherever the UK government’s crass Brexit rhetoric takes the EU-UK talks, the prospect, even with a deal, is one of a hard Brexit with potentially both tariff and non-tariff barriers to deal with at the UK-EU border – and so, too, at any future Scotland-rUK border.

For now, despite its rhetoric, the UK appears to be back to attempted cherry-picking, refusing serious negotiations to agree a ‘level-playing field’ on labour, environmental, state aid and climate regulations (despite this being in the agreed Political Declaration last autumn), while also wanting privileged access for services and to security databases and an ad hoc set of governance arrangements. At the same time, the UK is being dragged towards an acknowledgement that it did indeed sign up to customs and regulatory checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. If there is a deal, it will be one where there is some form of level-playing field, but it will also be one that means bureaucracy, barriers and delays at borders and so substantial economic costs. An external EU border between Scotland and England would face the same barriers.

The UK government is also insisting it wants no extension to the current transition period – which it should ask for by the end of June, if the UK is not to leave, deal or no deal, the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of this year. But there have been suggestions – including from Raoul Ruparel, a former adviser to Theresa May – that there could be a ‘preparation’ period assuming a deal was done this autumn, that would give more time in 2021 before the deal was implemented. Whether Boris Johnson’s government could go this way is unclear. But, if it did, that timing could be interesting given the Scottish parliament elections in May 2021. A clear victory for the SNP then – on a platform of independence in the EU – while the UK had not yet left the EU’s single market, could set up some interesting political debates around timing of an independence referendum and keeping Scotland as close as possible to EU legislation.

Shifting Politics

In the face of a major pandemic and emerging deep recession, EU, UK and Scottish politics will change. But if the EU does go down the path, following the current Merkel-Macron big intervention, of more political integration, how would an independent Scotland fit into this? The Scottish debate has always, at best, been tentative on joining the euro – and more focused on the more domestic question of using the pound or creating a Scottish currency. And in terms of the deficit and debt criteria, it would seem an independent Scotland would not anyway be eligible to join the euro straight away (depending on its economic performance at the time of its accession bid).

But if the EU is moving forward – even, as Merkel suggested, looking at treaty change – then will it become harder to be an EU member state on the outer tier like Denmark and Sweden, not in the euro, sceptical on deeper political integration? Perhaps so.

The debate in Scotland over independence in the EU – rather than being in the European Economic Area or being a rather lonely third country like the UK now is – has not always been very deep on the future of the EU or the merits of further political integration. But it needs to start to factor this in. The EU, not least with the UK having left, may well look rather different in a few years time. Opting to be on the EEA sidelines with Norway and Iceland would look like a timid position. But being part of a more politically integrated EU is something Scottish opinion would need to be positive about and engage with as Europe and the wider world evolves in the post-Covid era.

In the end, independence in the EU remains a feasible strategy. But in these Corona times, the politics and economics both of independence and of the EU are changing rapidly and in multiple ways. Any strategy for independence in the EU will need to keep up with these changes in a tough, dynamic and uncertain environment.