The length of time it would take an independent Scotland to negotiate re-entry to the EU will be dictated by how far the UK diverges from European regulations post-Brexit, officials in Brussels have said.
The SNP has repeatedly insisted it would look to reverse the decision of the 2016 referendum if a majority of Scots were to back separation from the UK at a future date.
But navigating a path to EU membership could take a new Scottish state years of complex negotiation, with doubts being expressed in the EU capital this week about the likelihood of any fast-track process.
“It depends on a number of things – it would depend on when that happens, and it would depend I expect on the extent to which there would have been divergence between now and then,” a senior EU official said.
“Ultimately any aspiring member state has to meet the EU’s acquis.
“And the question is to what extent would Scotland diverge. It’s an entirely hypothetical situation.”
The term acquis refers to the body of common rights and obligations that are binding on all EU countries. It is constantly evolving, but generally comprises the content, principles and political objectives of EU treaties.
Chancellor Sajid Javid sought to reassure business yesterday that there would be no wholesale dumping of EU regulations by the UK, and pledged there would be no divergence after Brexit for the sake of it.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Javid addressed the question of whether the UK would stay aligned with the EU rulebook – viewed as a crucial issue by manufacturing companies in the UK. “We are leaving the EU, the single market and the customs union. And we are doing that so that we can have control of our rules and laws,” he said.
Boris Johnson said on Wednesday the UK had “crossed the Brexit finish line” after the UK Parliament passed legislation implementing the withdrawal deal, which received royal assent yesterday.
As a constituent part of the UK, any rule changes could affect Scotland in the future if it was to back a Yes vote at a possible Indyref2.
The EU official continued: “One assumes that even if the UK diverges, it won’t be dramatic – so realignment, or readoption, might not be particularly difficult. That being the case, it presumably wouldn’t take as long as a Macedonia or an Albania – who have a huge journey to travel to meet [admissions criteria].
“One assumes it could be done relatively quickly. But Mr Johnson has said there will not a referendum for the lifetime of this government.”
Constitutional relations secretary Michael Russell said: “Scotland has been inside the European Union for more than 45 years and by definition is currently fully aligned with all EU rules.
“The UK government’s pursuit of a damaging hard Brexit outside the single market and customs union reinforces the right of people in Scotland to choose a better future as an independent country and for that decision to be made later this year.
“Scotland would be in a unique position, having already been inside the EU. Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, the author of Article 50 and a former UK ambassador to the EU, has said an independent Scotland’s accession to the EU could be ‘very fast’.”
Mr Russell was speaking after MSPs were told yesterday that the EU would not countenance an independent Scotland unless separation from the rest of the UK is legal and officially recognised by London.
Holyrood’s Europe committee was told that while there was “goodwill” towards Scotland within the EU, if it were to become independent, it would need to do so “in co-operation with Westminster” to be legally recognised.
MSPs were taking evidence on the EU Withdrawal Bill from experts, including former UK diplomat Dame Mariot Leslie, Kings College Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs, Anand Menon and Dr Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre.
Asked by SNP MSP Kenny Gibson about how Scotland “was perceived by other European nations, and by the EU currently”, and how this might change if it became independent, the committee was told that while the EU had “sympathies” towards Scotland, it would take its lead from London – and MSPs were warned not to expect the same “flexibility” from the EU as has been shown to Northern Ireland.
Dame Mariot, who also sits on the First Ministers’ Standing Council on Europe, said: “The reality is that no other country would recognise an independent Scotland until London had recognised it – then there would be a rapid queue of European Union countries, and countries beyond the EU who would do so.”