Catalan MEP Alejo Vidal-Quadras whipped up a big headline in The Scotsman yesterday with his claim that France and Spain would veto any bid by an independent Scotland to join the EU.
His claim may be speculation, but it is based on a fact that cannot be wished away – should Scotland vote for independence, its EU membership status will be in the hands of the other member states, any one of which could stop Scotland becoming an EU member.
How those other states would view a Scottish application is not something which can be known with any certainty unless and until such a bid is lodged. So you can either believe or disbelieve Mr Vidal-Quadras depending on your inclination and, quite frankly, your view is as good as anybody else’s, for there is no right or wrong answer to this question.
What is more, no definitive answer on this question is going to emerge before Scots go to the polls next September. Any voter for whom EU membership is the critical issue in deciding whether to vote Yes or No will simply have to make their own judgment of the likelihood or not of an independent Scotland becoming a member state.
This much emerged from recent off-the-record discussions I had with various European Commission officials in Brussels as part of a group of Scottish journalists on a fact-finding trip organised and financed by the Commission.
Much though Scottish independence is the burning issue here, it is some way down the priority list of the Commission as it continues to grapple with the eurozone currency, sovereign debt, and economic crises, plus finding a way through to the fiscal and banking unions which are necessary parts of the solutions to those crises.
Moreover, the Commission is increasingly obsessed with elections. This is not just next May’s European parliament elections, but also the selection of a new Commission and its president which will follow them. Manuel Barroso, the current president, is increasingly more concerned with manoeuvring for a third term as president than with what may be happening in the troublesome islands off the continent’s north-west coast.
But that matter is also over-shadowed by September’s German elections, for whoever controls the Bundestag pretty much controls the course of the EU. And while incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel (tacitly the preferred Brussels candidate) is far ahead of her social democrat rival, it is not inconceivable she could be ousted if Germany’s Greens do well and her Free Democrat coalition partners do badly.
This rather serious realpolitik is why questions of Scottish independence are regarded in Brussels as interesting but not a priority. Indeed, officials made it clear the Commission will say nothing beyond what it already has said on the subject, unless and until Scotland votes for independence and asks the question.
Why not? Quite simply, because the Commission is the servant of member states and deals with other states only at the behest of member states. And even if a member state was to ask the Commission how an independent Scotland would become an EU member, it still could not give an answer.
That, Commission officials said, was because Scotland would first have to spell out what sort of state it intended to be. Though Scotland obviously meets all the basic criteria for membership – democratic, respectful of human rights and freedoms, having criminal and civil justice systems with an independent judiciary free of political interference, etc, – there are a lot of other questions that need answers.
These include what sort of currency Scotland would have, whether it would have a central bank, what sort of financial industry supervision there would be, whether there would be border controls, and so on. Once there were answers to these questions, then the Commission would begin to formulate a position to present to the European Council – the heads of government of the existing member states.
They, rather than the Commission, would decide on Scotland’s application because EU law says that the addition of a new member requires that country’s position – in terms of having a seat and votes on the Council and in other European institutions – to be written into the EU treaties. That can only be done by amending the existing treaties, and amendments require to be unanimously approved by all members, shortly to become 28 with the accession of Croatia next month.
This is just a basic legal fact and everything else – whether Scotland would be negotiating from within the EU, whether Scots are already EU citizens – is secondary. The bottom line is that Scotland’s membership bid has to be approved by all other member states.
Those questions will not be easy to answer. Current Scottish government policy is that Scotland’s currency will be sterling and its central bank will be the Bank of England. That, however, has first to be negotiated with the UK government, which has unhelpfully said it thinks agreement to that effect is unlikely.
And even if the UK government eventually agrees, this then has to be approved by the other 27 EU member states, acting on the advice of the Commission which will be doing the negotiations. Would the Commission approve of a new member state which didn’t have its own currency or central bank and therefore no control over monetary policy, all of which was exercised by another member state?
And if it did, would that also meet with the unanimous approval of another 28 member states? I do not believe that it is possible to give a definitive answer either way, although it does appear to be the case that the proposed constitutional arrangement would be so novel as to strain the EU’s renowned flexibility to its absolute limit.
Arguing that Scotland’s entry would be acceptable also presumes that none of the other member states would see approval of Scotland’s bid as likely to assist the nationalist parties within their own borders – Basque and Catalan in Spain, Flemish in Belgium – in succeeding with their long-term aspirations.
It also isn’t clear to me why the cards that the Scottish Government says it would play at the negotiating table – possession of oil, renewable energy and fishing resources – are as strong as claimed. An independent Scotland, spurned from the EU, could not deny EU customers supplies of oil, or charge them a premium, because it is a commodity traded on international markets.
In short, Scotland’s accession to the EU is neither automatically possible nor impossible. But the entry path is strewn with difficulties and it is insulting the intelligence of Scottish voters to argue otherwise.