AN INDEPENDENT Scotland would be forced to apply to become a member of the European Union, a senior official said last night.
Alex Salmond has argued repeatedly that the transition from Union with England to the European Union would be "seamless", with a breakaway Scotland becoming an automatic member of the EU.
The European Commission has always refused to get involved in the debate, appreciating how sensitive the subject is in Scotland. But now, in a blow to Mr Salmond, Joe Borg, the fisheries commissioner, has broken ranks to say unequivocally that in his view, an independent Scotland would remain outside the EU until it had completed the formal application process - in the same way as Eastern European states have done in recent years.
That application process would be much easier than for the new accession states because Scotland has been in the EU for 30 years, but it would probably take months, maybe even years, to complete, with all the other member states having to approve the country's membership before it could join.
In an interview with The Scotsman, Mr Borg said: "On the issue concerning Scotland's independence, that's not my competence to assess or to evaluate but if, for one moment, we were to assume that Scotland gained independence and therefore is eligible as a new member state for the European Union, I would see that, legally speaking, the continuation of the membership would remain with the rest of the UK - less Scotland. And, therefore, Scotland, as a newly independent state, would have to apply for membership."
Mr Borg's remarks run completely against assumptions the SNP has been making for years and contradict statements from both Mr Salmond and his enterprise minister, Jim Mather.
Last year, writing in The Scotsman, Mr Salmond said: "Scotland is already a member of the EU and that would continue. It is not easy to leave the EU, as we saw with the attempts by Greenland when they won autonomy from Denmark."
This year, Mr Mather said: "We are an incumbent member state - what about England having to re-apply?"
A spokesman for Mr Salmond stressed last night that the First Minister did not share Mr Borg's view.
He said: "Commissioner Borg makes it clear that the issue is not within his competence to assess as an individual. In response to several European parliamentary questions on the matter, the European Commission has quite deliberately and properly not given that answer, which is its official position.
"The reality is very clear, and was expressed by the late Robin Cook, when foreign secretary, in his statement that an independent Scotland would remain a member of the EU: 'It's in the nature of the European Union, it welcomes all comers and Scotland would be a member'.
"When we have recently welcomed Romania and Bulgaria into full EU membership, how could it be otherwise for resource-rich Scotland?"
The European Commission retained its neutral position yesterday. A spokeswoman said: "It is not customary for the commission to state its views on matters which, as things stand, are purely hypothetical."
But, by speaking out in the way he has done, Mr Borg has sparked a renewed debate on Scotland's future as an independent country, not least because he is the most senior and influential figure from Europe to have made his views known on the issue.
His comments suggest Scotland's place as an independent member state within the EU is not guaranteed and that it might find itself outside its main trading block for months, if not years.
Earlier this year, Lorand Bartels, a lecturer in international economic law at Edinburgh University, said that, while Scotland could probably be assured of an easy route into the EU, it would not be immediate. "This process may be relatively unproblematic, given that Scotland already applies EU law, but it is unlikely to be entirely 'seamless'. At the very least, there would be likely to be an obligation to adopt the euro," he said.
Another problem is the French have decided to hold a nationwide referendum before any new members are allowed into the EU - putting an independent Scotland's membership in the hands of the French people.
Mr Borg's remarks delighted the SNP's opponents, who claimed the commissioner had undermined the SNP's case for "independence in Europe".
Ted Brocklebank, for the Tories, said: "This means, presumably that Scotland, as an applicant state, would have to sign up to the euro because that's what all applicant countries have to do. Salmond has to come clean on this, Scotland's membership of the EU would not be straightforward."
A spokesman for the Labour Party said: "Commissioner Borg has humiliated Alex Salmond by exposing the massive hole in the SNP rhetoric on independence.
"Alex Salmond's plans for independence would leave Scotland isolated and out of Europe. The SNP want to separate Scotland from one of our most important economic partnerships and leave the decision as to our future membership of one of the world's largest trading blocs at the mercy of a referendum in France."
The debate over the future of an independent Scotland goes to the heart of the SNP's agenda. The "independence in Europe" slogan was coined to reassure Scots worried they would left on the fringes of Europe if they backed independence.
It is crucial to the SNP's case for independence that Scotland has a smooth and seamless entry into the EU, because any hiatus between membership of the UK and membership of the EU would threaten the viability of numerous industries.
Mr Borg also expressed severe doubts about Scotland's ability to withdraw from the common fisheries policy - an approach that used to be advocated by the SNP. He said it was "not legally possible".
Q & A: SO WHAT COULD HAPPEN?
Question: Why is the issue of Scotland's membership of the EU so important?
Answer: The SNP's policy of independence is based on "independence in Europe" - the idea that an independent Scotland would swap UK membership for EU membership seamlessly. If there was a break in that EU membership, it could have a devastating effect on a number of key Scottish industries, including the financial services sector, which relies on open borders and free movement of workers and capital within the EU for its success.
Question: Why is there doubt about Scotland's continuing EU membership?
Answer: If Scotland became independent, it would no longer be a part of the UK, which is an EU member. Opinion is divided as to whether Scotland would automatically become a new member state, or whether it would have to re-apply.
Question: What has the European Commission said?
Answer: The European Commission has studiously stayed out of this argument, refusing to comment - a position it continued to keep yesterday.
Question: Who is Joe Borg and why do his views count?
Answer: He is considered one of the most highly influential and important European commissioners. These are appointed officials who decide policy in the European Commission. Mr Borg is in charge of fisheries and the marine environment, a key area of policy for Europe. He is the first commissioner to express such a clear and unambiguous view on the future membership status of an independent Scotland.
Question: Are there any other examples of countries splitting in this way to create separate member states?
Answer: There are only two examples which have any loose similarities to Scotland's situation, but neither of them are exact examples. Denmark became a member of the EU in 1973 when Greenland was one of its territories. Greenland is the only territory which was once part of the union (then called the European Community) before it voted to leave in 1982. Greenlanders are, none the less, full EU citizens owing to their Danish citizenship.
Algeria was a French colony when France started the European Coal and Steel Community (the forerunner of the EU) in 1957. Algeria then left the EEC, as it had then become, in 1962 when the country gained independence from France.
There have been no examples of existing member states splitting and both parts wanting to remain members, so an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK both looking for continued membership would be unprecedented.
HOW WE BENEFIT FROM BEING PART OF THE UNION
SCOTLAND'S membership of the EU has brought in billions of pounds in subsidies and grants over the last 30 years - a financial windfall which the SNP's opponents claim would be threatened by any break to that membership.
It is impossible to gauge exactly how much Scotland receives every year, primarily because of the EU's complicated accounting system.
But it is clear - from the completion of major road projects in the Highlands to structural grants given to sparsely populated areas in the south - that Scotland gains financially from its membership.
The United Kingdom as the member state will pay out 69.5 billion over the next five years to the EU and get 31 billion back in a rebate.
That does not mean that the UK simply loses 38.5 billion. A large part of that amount will come back in the form of farm-subsidy payments, regional structural funds and other forms of grant aid - some of which will come to Scotland.
Just three days ago, it was revealed that a hundred of the richest farmers in Scotland have received 115 million in EU-backed government subsidies over the last five years.
More than 50 farmers received 1 million each, five received 2 million each and one got 3.5 million.
These farmers and estate- management groups would be among the first to suffer if Scotland was outside the European Union.
The Scottish Government could continue to fund these subsidies on its own but that would be unlikely.
So although Scotland's richest farmers will be the most visible victims of any period when Scotland is outside the EU, many other people in many other areas and industries will also suffer.
Europe, including the rest of the UK, represents by far the largest trading partner for Scottish business.
That business is protected by European laws and agreements allowing the free movement of workers and capital.
Any break in that link between Scotland and the EU would cause massive uncertainty in the financial markets and upheaval in the thriving Scottish financial-services market.
The Scottish Government is currently pursuing cross-border agreements with the Irish government, to find out whether European money could be secured for joint transport projects. These would all be under threat if Scotland was outside the EU.
Large parts of rural Scotland have benefited from structural funds and although the scale of these payments has reduced considerably in the last few years, a loss of this income would be felt keenly in Scotland's remote areas.