The SNP Government was on collision course with the European Commission last night after Nicola Sturgeon refused to accept a ruling by the body’s president that a newly independent Scotland would have to apply for membership of the EU.
Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said it was “obvious” a newly independent state would have to apply to be a member of the EU, in line with existing rules, prompting the Deputy First Minister to dispute his view and promise to seek urgent talks with Brussels on independence.
Mr Barroso’s response, in a television interview and written reply to questions from the House of Lords economic affairs committee, confirmed that European treaties would no longer apply to an independent Scotland, as The Scotsman reported last week.
In a letter to Lord Tugendhat, acting chairman of the Lords committee, Mr Barroso writes: “A new independent state would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the EU and the treaties would no longer apply on its territory.”
The SNP has always claimed that Scotland would automatically remain a part of the EU after independence.
Opponents say the revelations are a major blow for the SNP government’s credibility on the issue and would have a major impact on Scotland’s vital economic, fisheries and agriculture interests.
Reacting to the commission president’s statements, Ms Sturgeon said: “We do not agree that an independent Scotland will be in the position of having to reapply for European Union membership, because there is no provision for removing EU treaties from any part of EU territory, or for removing European citizenship from the people of a country which has been in the EU for 40 years.
“We are now seeking early talks with the European Commission to discuss the specific process of Scotland becoming independent.
“As the commission has said before, the matter cannot be separated from specific circumstances – and we now have those specific circumstances as outlined in the Edinburgh Agreement.”
The agreement was signed in the capital by Alex Salmond and David Cameron earlier this year and paves the way for the 2014 referendum to be staged legally.
There are currently 27 EU member states and the remainder of the UK would keep its seat at the top table if Scotland votes for independence in 2014, Mr Barroso said in a television interview yesterday.
He also strongly hinted that the new government in Edinburgh would have to apply for membership, when asked about Scotland’s situation. “If one part of a country – I’m not referring to any specific one – wants to become an independent state, of course as an independent state it has to apply to European membership, according to the rules that’s obvious,” Mr Barroso said.
Asked specifically about Scotland, he said: “For European Union purposes, from a legal point of view, it is certainly a new state. If a country becomes independent it is a new state and has to negotiate with the EU.”
The issue intensified last week when EU chiefs issued a written parliamentary answer spelling out that membership would no longer apply to any territory within EU boundaries which became independent.
The Scotsman also revealed last week that a letter from Mr Barroso to be sent to the Lords economic committee would warn that Scotland would become “a third country” in the event of independence and EU treaties would no longer apply to it.
The letter had not been sent at this stage, prompting a spokesman for Ms Sturgeon to say claim The Scotsman story was “fabricated”.
SNP MSP Alyn SMith claimed the story was a “blacks ops” operation against the Nationalists.
Mr Salmond said last week: “Were the newspaper duped by anti-independence people on the House of Lords committee or the United Kingdom government? Was the commission at fault? But we know that that story is not correct.
“I think it’s of interest to the people of Scotland because this might be an example by which we judge all of the other scaremongering that will come over the next two years or so.”
However, the letter has now been sent to the committee and was made public last night, confirming last week’s story. The SNP has previously claimed that Scotland’s membership of the EU would be “automatic” after independence.
It now says a two-year window would exist between a Yes vote in the 2014 referendum and the nation becoming formally independent with the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016.
This would mean negotiations could be carried on while Scotland is still an EU member as part of the UK.
But opponents say the need for negotiations means there is a danger Scotland’s membership could be blocked by countries such as Spain which may fear it sets a precedent for Nationalist movements in regions such as Catalonia.
Even if EU membership is accepted, Scotland’s new terms could mean it is forced to adopt the troubled euro currency, as well as the Schengen agreement on open borders, from which the UK is currently exempt. The current UK funding rebate could also go.
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said that Mr Barroso’s comments were not a surprise.
“That would mean Scotland needing to negotiate from a position of weakness, with all the implications that would have for agriculture, fisheries, and the economy,” he said.
“These are risks we do not face as part of the UK, a current, large and influential member. And there is a bigger lesson here: the Scottish Government’s assertions on this issue have been exposed.
“This debate must be based on robust evidence and fact.”
The Conservatives are now calling for the Scottish Government to make an emergency statement at Holyrood on the issue.
“Now we have it straight from the horse’s mouth, the First Minister has to explain why he has been so blasé about such an important matter affecting the future of our country,” Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said.
Tory chief whip John Lamont said: “This issue is of sufficient importance for either the First Minister or his deputy to come to the chamber and offer an explanation.
“He and other members of the SNP have told the Scottish Parliament, on a number of occasions, that a separate Scotland would automatically become part of the EU.”
The Scottish Government was forced to admit that does not have specific legal advice on the issue earlier this year, despite launching a court battle to keep this secret. Ms Sturgeon has now sought this advice.
Scottish Labour’s constitutional spokeswoman Patricia Ferguson said: “This is the clearest indication yet that the SNP government has got this badly wrong and an independent Scotland would not automatically be a member of the EU.
“The consequences of having to reapply to join the EU and losing the UK opt-outs could mean an independent Scotland adopting the Euro and having to set up border controls with England.”