Nicola Sturgeon is using Brexit as an excuse to call a new Scottish independence referendum. But the first minister is being coy about whether she would then want to take Scotland back into the EU. There is speculation that she might instead seek a half-way house such as membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
When Sturgeon announced her referendum plan on Monday, she merely said that an independent Scotland would be better placed to “secure our relationship with Europe”. There are two reasons why she may not want to commit herself to rejoining the EU.
First, although Scotland voted to stay in the EU, there’s still a lot of euroscepticism north of the border: 38% of Scots voted for Brexit; and about a quarter of those who backed independence in 2014 voted to quit the EU.
The latest annual Scottish Social Attitudes survey shows that both euroscepticism and support for independence are at record highs. Sturgeon does not wish to put off some Scots who back independence by being seen as too pro-European.
Second, joining the EU as an independent country would not be trouble-free. For a start, Scotland probably couldn’t just continue as a member of the club. The EU’s position is that it would have to reapply.
What’s more, Madrid has made clear that an independent Scotland would have to join the “queue” for EU membership. It fears a precedent would be set that would make it easy for Catalonia to break away from Spain.
Rejoining the EU would also come with strings attached which would be hard to sell to the Scottish electorate. Edinburgh might have to join the euro, given that the UK’s opt-out would have expired. It would probably have to pay a large sum into the EU budget, as the UK’s rebate would also have gone out of the window.
Perhaps most problematically, Theresa May has decided to pull out of the EU’s customs union and there’s even a chance that the UK could quit the EU without any deal at all. In such circumstances, it’s hard to see how Scotland could join the EU without imposing border controls between it and England.
EEA or EFTA?
How might Sturgeon square these circles? According to The Telegraph, she is thinking about joining EFTA and only later, perhaps via another referendum, deciding whether to join the EU.
Membership of EFTA – which is made up of Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – might be a good idea for an independent Scotland. There would be no need to join the euro, no need to join the EU’s customs union and no need to pay into its budget either.
But EFTA membership wouldn’t be enough on its own. After all, it wouldn’t give Scotland any special trading rights with the EU. It would just have free trade agreements with the smallish EFTA countries and the 38 other nations EFTA has cut deals with.
An independent Scotland would probably want to supplement EFTA with membership of the EEA. This is the single market which combines the EU with the EFTA countries apart from Switzerland. One attraction of such an arrangement is that Scotland would enjoy full access to the EU market and still wouldn’t need to join the euro.
True, Edinburgh would have to make budget payments and follow the EU’s rules without being able to vote on them. But, critically, it wouldn’t have to join the customs’ union. As such, it should be able to avoid imposing border controls with England, though it would then need them with the rest of the EU.
Sturgeon will probably try to be as ambiguous as possible about what sort of relationship she wants with Europe if Scotland votes for independence. She will want to be all things to all people – appealing both to Scots who want to rejoin the EU and those who don’t.
The first minister will have seen how Brexiters were able to win their referendum by being extremely vague about what sort of relationship they wanted with the EU. One of the main tasks of unionists will be to pin her down.
Edited by Luke Lythgoe