MEPs could block Scotland’s EU membership if it pushes for euro opt-out

A Scottish independence rally in Edinburgh. September 2013. [Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill/ Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE: Members of the European Parliament could block an independent Scotland’s EU membership if it insists on keeping currency and border treaty opt-outs negotiated by the UK, sources in the two largest political groups in Brussels told EURACTIV.

Scotland will likely have to reapply for EU membership as any other prospective member state, if it votes yes to independence on Thursday, 18 September, according to MEPs and EU officials.

Even if Scotland can secure the unanimous backing of the 28 EU member states – far from certain when countries like Spain and Belgium are struggling with their own independence movements – its accession will still be put to a vote of the Parliament.

A Socialists and Democrats source said, “The opt-outs they’re pushing for would make it very difficult for them to get membership.”

Scottish independence leaders want to remain in the EU. But they also want to keep UK opt-outs on the obligation to eventually join the euro, the passport-free Schengen zone, and the British VAT rebate.

The nationalists plan an 18-month twin negotiation that would simultaneously achieve separation from the UK and EU membership. But it isn’t clear if a country can legally negotiate for EU membership before being independent.

Sources in the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialist and Democrats group said Scotland could be blocked if it didn’t pledge to move towards adopting the euro as any other prospective member state must.

The socialist source said, “We are deeply concerned about the prospects of a yes vote in the referendum.”

The EPP source said that the EPP’s agreed political position is that the EU will not be enlarged in the next five years. But he stressed Scotland in particular had not been formally discussed when coming to that decision.

A second EPP insider said it could be possible to find a way around the non-enlargement position because Scotland was already part of the EU. But he admitted that issues such as the euro and Schengen were extremely important to pro-EU MEPs in all the political groups.

Opt-outs at risk

Jo Leinen, a former chair and now member of the Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, said that the UK opt-outs would be “at risk” in the negotiation process for membership.

Those talks would be initially between Scotland, the UK and EU officials before going before other EU countries and the Parliament, he said.

The German socialist MEP issued a press release last week, which said a special accession treaty could be arranged in the 18 months before March 2016’s independence day. Although it would need its own central bank, Scotland had already implemented much of European law while a member of the UK, he said.

Ian Duncan is a Scottish Conservative MEP, who is campaigning for Scotland to stay in the UK.

He said, “No country has ever negotiated a pre-opt-out. Not one. Every opt-out has been negotiated after accession.”

Duncan, of the European Conservatives and Reformist group, said EU officials had told him his country would have to apply for EU membership like any other new member state if it votes to leave the United Kingdom.

He said his contacts in the European Commission, European Parliament and EU Council refused to make the statement in public.

Duncan, previously head of the Scottish Parliament Office in Brussels for eight years, said, “I asked them and they absolutely will not go on the record.

“I believe they are fearful of creating a precedent at a time when there are separatist movements across the EU.”

The MEP is campaigning non-stop in the run up to the vote. He was elected in May’s European elections, replacing Struan Stevenson, on a platform of EU reform and an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Whether other member states or the European institutions allowed a new member state to keep opt-outs negotiated by the UK was unlikely, he added.

He said, “If there is a ‘no’ vote on 16 March, when Scotland becomes independent, I will no longer have a constituency in the European Parliament. I will lose my job. Scotland will lose its place in the EU.

“What is clear is that Scotland will not be negotiating from a position of strength during the accession talks…and [Scottish National Party leader] Alex Salmond has never said what his red lines are.”

No comment from Commission

The European Commission last week repeatedly refused to comment on the referendum and how it would affect Scotland’s EU status.

That was despite President Jose Manuel Barroso saying in February that Scotland would need to apply like any prospective state.

Comments by EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy last year about Catalonia have also been interpreted as suggesting the same.

European Commission President-elect Jean Claude-Juncker is an EPP member. His officials are sticking to the non-enlargement line.

The Commission would not comment on MEP Leinen’s suggestion of a special accession treaty.

Leinen said, “We have no precedent for this but, formally, if you separate from a member state you are a new state and you have to apply for membership.

“I don’t believe the Commission has formally prepared a Plan B. They have no scenarios […] but speaking from a constitutional affairs point of view I would be extremely surprised if there was an automatic accession to the EU.”

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.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso has said it is “nearly impossible” for independent Scotland to join the EU.

>> Read: Barroso: It’s ‘nearly impossible’ for independent Scotland to join EU

  • Thursday, 18 September: Scotland votes on independence
  • March 2016: Proposed date of independence

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