March 15, 2017
On the nuances of Spain's position on Scotland
The announcement by Nicola Sturgeon that she would seek a second independence referendum for Scotland has put the spotlight again on Spain which is expected to prevent the EU accepting an independent Scotland because of its own separatist conflict in Catalonia. However, in recent weeks prominent Spanish politicians had denied Spain would object to Scotland becoming an EU member. On Monday foreign minister Alfonso Dastis reiterated Spain's position that an independent Scotland would have to renegotiate accession to the EU. Let's try to unpack all this.
A story from the BBC last week about European opinions on Brexit quoted Esteban González Pons, leader of the PP faction in the European Parliament, denying that Spain would veto Scotland's accession to the EU. However he assumed that Scotland would have to apply to come back into the EU after Brexit. This earlier story from Buzzfeed quotes a larger number of Spanish politicians to the same effect.
What Spain is adamant about, El País wrote yesterday, is that Scotland cannot negotiate with the EU while it is still a part of the UK and therefore, whether Scottish independence happened before or after Brexit, an independent Scotland will find itself initially outside the EU. This is stressed with colourful phrases such as "at the back of the queue" which have no legal meaning, and ignore that Scotland would already be applying the EU acquis so accession negotiations could proceed quickly.
One immediate observation about all this is that Scotland, not having been independent for over 300 years, is not party to any international treaties and so would really find itself outside trade agreements and the like unless special arrangements are made. The UK is itself part of the WTO, has legacy bilateral air traffic agreements with other countries, and is a member of all major international organisations already. So even if Scotland can be fast-tracked back into the EU, the UK would initially be in a much better position after a hard Brexit than Scotland would be immediately after independence.
What about EEA membership? Here the same logic applies. The EEA member state will not allow a region to become a member - but Scotland would have to become independent first, and then negotiate accession. But while EEA membership is a clearly an avenue to pursue for an independent Scotland, it is not clear whether that is desirable. Given Scotland's dependency on the UK for trade, the best economic option for an independent Scotland would be to create a customs union with the UK, and let that custom union agree a trade deal with the EU.
The Times has a poll out this morning, showing that 57% of Scots want to stay in the UK post-Brexit. It also confirmed that those who vote in favour of staying in 2014 would do so again. While any poll of this kind comes with health warnings, these numbers seem right to us. Brexit has muddied the waters a bit, as the Economist put it, but it will not change Scotland’s fundamental position. Unlike in 2014, the public is now much more aware of the type of alliance an independent Scotland could have with the rest of the EU: none in the short term, and uncertain in the long term.
The most likely option, however, is that Scotland will remain in the UK, that the UK, including Scotland, will exit the EU on schedule in 2019, and that there will be an Article 50 agreement, together with a transitional arrangement.