Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The relationship with the EU

By David Crawley. This article first appeared in the spring 2014 edition of the RSGS's magazine, The Geographer. 

The current debate about how and when an independent Scotland might join the European Union as a full member – vital though that is – risks obscuring the extent and nature of Scotland’s current links with the rest of Europe, and the long-term importance of our European relationships whatever the outcome of the referendum. 

Scotland has long had a strong relationship with Europe as part of the UK. We have played an active part in many sectors – notably farming and fisheries, but in many others which touch closely on Scottish interests, including environment, justice and home affairs, regional development, and the single market. Before devolution, Scottish Ministers and officials were routinely involved in EU Council meetings as part of the UK team negotiating on key issues like the Common Fisheries Policy, the regular Common Agricultural Policy discussions, the environment, food and animal health. After devolution, a set of formal agreements known as concordats between the UK and Scottish Governments have provided for continuing Scottish involvement, and Scotland has pursued its interests through its representation in Brussels, which has operated alongside the UK representation and which, unusually among EU regional representations, was allowed the huge advantage of full diplomatic status. 

We have developed links with many European regions and member states, and now have a strong reputation in Brussels built around Scottish culture and our core priorities of farming, fisheries, food and the environment. We have also been able to access substantial EU resources for regional and rural development. Also important, our links with non- members of the EU have depended on common interests – notably in the case of Norway, with whom we share common concerns in oil and fisheries, and a long cultural history. 

If Scotland votes for independence, the economic, social and cultural case for Scotland remaining within the EU as a full member looks unarguable. Access to the single European market, which is a major destination for Scotland’s exports and a major source of goods and services, would be central to future Scottish economic policy. Our place within Europe is a key factor in inward investment; we would remain a substantial beneficiary of European funding; and the flow of people and skills in both directions would create huge opportunities. I believe Scotland also understands the wider political case for the EU, and its record in cementing peace across the whole of Europe and in developing a European culture alongside existing national and regional cultures. For Scotland, there are no credible alternatives – the option of joining countries like Norway in the European Economic Area has few attractions, given that it involves most of the costs and responsibilities of EU membership without involvement in the decisions. 

Arguably Scotland has understood the value of its links with Europe better than other parts of the UK. The recorded view of the Scottish people is relatively positive, and it seems clear from polling that a substantial majority think Scotland should stay in the EU if it becomes independent. Yet European membership is no free ride. Scotland would have to move to a much more grown-up version of its European role. It would be one of the more prosperous member states of the expanded EU and would have to bear its share of responsibilities and costs. It would have to work hard at alliances and would need to recognise that small states tend to do best if they support European ideals and objectives. 

The road by which an independent Scotland would become a member of the EU faces awkward obstacles. It would require complex negotiation with all member states within the framework of the European Treaties: the EU is based on agreements between states, not peoples. It still seems likely that most other member states would welcome Scotland, but there are no guarantees and it is already clear that there would be opposition. This would require hard thinking about how far to press for similar opt-outs to those of the UK, or for special measures on the euro or fisheries. We are likely to be disappointed in the hope of quick and seamless entry, however strong we feel our case to be. If Scotland votes to stay in the UK, our European future will be tied to that of the wider UK, with the possibility of an in/out referendum during the next parliament. I would expect that, after much debate, the UK will vote to stay in the EU and that Scottish involvement will help to ensure that. If, on the other hand, Scotland were to vote for independence and the remainder of the UK were to vote to leave the EU, Scotland would be forced to make some very difficult choices. However much we wish to remain part of the EU, therefore, we can only look forward to a period of intense uncertainty.