EU holds its breath as Scots go to polls

Pro-independence flyers. Scotland, July 2014. [Connie Ma/Flickr]

The EU has largely kept a diplomatic silence in the weeks before today’s Scotland’s independence referendum, but the implications of a “yes” vote are broadly seen in Brussels as the last thing the Union needs in its present difficult circumstances.

One of the possible implications is the fate of the United Kingdom, as without predominantly pro-EU Scotland, the rest of the UK is more likely to choose to leave the Union in the 2017 referendum promised by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Another fear is the “domino effect” of other European regions splitting from EU member countries, such as Catalonia in Spain, Lombardy in Italy, Belgium dividing into Wallonia and Flanders, or even Bavaria seceding from Germany.

Faced with the challenge of the Ukraine crisis, the last thing the EU needs is to be swamped into the same processes of disintegration as the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Torpedo below the waterline

Speaking to members of his country’s parliament on 17 September, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said that independence referendums in Scotland or Spain’s Catalonia region are like “a torpedo below the waterline” of European integration.

Separating territories from member states is largely seen as contrary to the idea of European integration. Rich regions becoming independent entities is exactly the opposite of EU policies of cohesion, and introducing new borders puts into question one of the major achievements of the Union – the borderless Schengen area.

The entire history of European integration, staring with the creation of a common market, is based on the idea of achieving greater prosperity in an ever more unified, not more fragmented, manner.

Rajoy, who was in fact the only non-UK leader of an EU country to speak up his mind ahead of the Scottish referendum, said that Scotland would have to undergo all of the processes that apply to any new state in joining the EU.

EU enlargement is decided by unanimity and Rajoy has previously suggested that he might block Scotland’s entry into the EU.

Back in 2012, Commission President José Manuel Barroso wrote to a member of Britain’s upper chamber of parliament, the House of Lords. He said that if part of the territory of a member state would cease to be part of that state because it were to become a new independent state, EU treaties would no longer apply to that territory. In that sense, Barroso made it clear that an independent Scotland would no longer be part of the EU.

Barroso’s spokespersons have been pressed in recent days and weeks to repeat what Barroso had written. However, their line was clearly “no comment” until the referendum takes place.

Overnight accession

Many in the EU believe in the concept of ‘overnight accession’. MEP Jo Leinen (S&D, Germany), a reputed constitutionalist, said that if Scots decide to leave the United Kingdom, Scotland should be able to join the European Union on the day of its independence.

“There is no doubt that Scotland fulfils the requirements for an EU membership, since it has already implemented European law as part of the United Kingdom,” says Leinen. Therefore, in his words, Scotland should not be compared with other candidate candidates. But Leinen warned that treaty opt-outs such as on the euro and Schengen negotiated by the UK would be at risk in any negotiations.

It is not easy to divide the number of qualified majority votes in the council, of MEPs, not speaking of EU funding, between the UK and Scotland, or between any territory that would decide to secede from a member country. At present, the UK has 73 MEPs, six of them being from Scottish constituencies.

If Scotland choosese independence, there will be 18 months of negotiations with London on how to separate their institutions. Some of the issues are what would Scotland’s currency be, what to do with the UK nuclear submarine fleet based in Scottish ports and how much of the UK debt would be borne by the new state.

The advocates of overnight accession also mention East Germany. It was dissolved on 3 October 1990 and was reunited with the Federal Republic of Germany, its territory becoming part of the European Communities without any accession process.

This was a major political deal between Germany and France. In exchange, Germany decided it would abandon the Deutschmark in favour of a common European currency.

It is therefore likely that in case Scots would choose independence, the status of their country vis-a-vis the EU would be decided at the highest political level, not on legalistic grounds. 

Scotland and the UK signed an agreement on 15 October 2012 opening the way for a referendum on independence in the autumn 2014.

Scotland has been a nation within the United Kingdom since the UK was founded in 1707.

The current Scottish Parliament was founded in 1999 as part of the process of devolution within the UK, which created regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to give the regions greater autonomy. The Scottish Parliament has control over some parts of policy, such as education and health, and can create its own laws on these issues.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), which leads the devolved government, is campaigning for Scottish independence. The SNP claims that Scotland needs a stronger voice in Europe and beyond to properly represent its social, political and economic interests.

Scottish ministers complain that issues important to them are often sidelined by London.

  • 18 Sept.: Scots vote, polling stations close at 10 p.m.. Ballots to be counted overnight
  • 19 Sept.: Results to be announced at approximately 7 a.m.

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