Scotland’s European Relations: Where Next?

Kirsty Hughes analyses the range of Scotland’s relationships with the EU, and the Scottish government’s European strategy, in the context of both the new post-Brexit reality and of continuing constitutional tensions.

Scotland, alongside the rest of the UK, is now outside of the EU and no longer in its single market or customs union (with Northern Ireland having its own differentiated status). The structure for Scotland’s relationships with the EU and its member states is provided mainly but not only by the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Withdrawal Agreement. Despite Brexit, the EU remains, by far, the largest trade partner both of the UK and of Scotland. And Scotland is still a European country – and one that voted against Brexit in 2016.

The May 2021 elections to the Scottish Parliament once again resulted in a government led by the Scottish National party (SNP). The SNP with 64 seats was one seat short of an overall majority but, with 8 seats going to the pro-independence Scottish Greens, there is a clear majority for independence in the EU, and for holding another referendum on independence in the Scottish parliament. Yet the Scottish public are currently divided 50:50 on independence.

Brexit has impacted in a myriad of damaging ways on Scotland’s EU relations but nonetheless there are still a wide and diverse range of economic, political, cultural, social and other relationships. Businesses, unions, NGOs, educational and research bodies, cultural organisations and groups all still have important EU networks and relationships but face increased complexities in navigating these. Scotland, like the rest of the UK, is now an outsider looking in with less access, influence and voice.

Just over half of Scotland’s international exports go to the EU and European Economic Area – it is Scotland’s largest export market. But there will be a growing impact of the new barriers put in place since January this year through the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). There are also, for now, unanswered questions as to how and to what extent Scottish interests and politicians will be represented within the TCA’s governance structures.

The Scottish government has a rather distinct European stance compared to that of the UK government. It was opposed to Brexit, it aims to remain aligned to EU laws in devolved areas (something that may run up again the UK’s Internal Market Act), and it has the overarching goal of independence in the EU. As a sub-state, Scotland has no foreign policy but through a range of devolved areas – environment, health, education, culture, economy and more – Scotland has a clear para-diplomacy and European strategy, one not atypical for sub-states and regions (both within and beyond the EU). That European strategy focuses on three broad areas: environment and net zero, well-being, and innovation. The Scottish government also has four main offices in the EU – in Brussels, Berlin, Dublin and Paris and is looking to open more.

This para-diplomacy is rather neuralgic for the UK government both due to its ‘global Britain’ foreign policy and to the UK government’s aim to stop the UK from fragmenting. There is a potentially unstable triangle here of Scotland-EU, EU-UK, and UK-Scotland relationships all impacting on Scotland’s European relations. Yet, overall, it is in both Scotland’s and the UK’s interests to have positive relationships with the EU.

Whether and when Scotland may have another independence referendum is unclear. But if at a future point, the Scottish public votes for independence, then Scotland would be eligible to apply to join the EU. It seems clear that the Scottish government aims to demonstrate that it understands the EU’s neutrality on Scotland’s constitutional question, knows that it will face a normal accession process, and aims to show that now and in the future it will be a constructive European player.

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SCER is grateful to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung UK and Ireland for their support for this paper. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.