Reinforcing or disintegrating the EU? The case of Scotland

By Arielle Giovannoni | 4 February 2013

To quote this document: Arielle Giovannoni, “Reinforcing or disintegrating the EU? The case of Scotland”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 4 February 2013,, displayed on 06 December 2022

Scotland has a history of its own when it comes to the concept of Union. From the Act of Union in 1707 with England and Scotland forming Great Britain, to the Scottish Devolution referendum in 1997 and the upcoming independence referendum in 2014, is Scotland setting a precedent also in the European Union?


Devolution, disintegration, yet still European integration?

When looking at syllabuses of European Studies in British universities, one is struck by references to post-integration movements, with titles such as “Europe beyond the nation-state” for instance. However, it seems that this movement beyond can also be associated with a movement back to. Are we witnessing a movement of disintegration? It seems that there is a will of European integration within national disintegration. This dual process is peculiar to some European regions. Scotland constitutes a historical, but also one of the most current tokens of this very process.

Although England and Scotland have formed Great Britain since 1707, it seems impossible to assimilate these two entities. Edinburgh once was the city of the Scottish Enlightenment, Scotland has maintained the existence of a distinct legal system from Wales and England. The list that makes Scottish identity is long. However, this distinction has not been confined to the idea of identity. It was put into political motion in the Scottish Devolution referendum as early as 1979, leading to another referendum in 1997, which resulted in the creation of a Scottish Parliament – distinct from Westminster in policy areas directly concerning Scotland. Yet, in this movement of national disintegration, Scotland is and wants to be part of a larger body politic – the European Union.

Scotland and the 2014 independence referendum

The independence referendum has been planned for fall 2014 by the SNP (Scottish National Party) and his leader Alex Salmond. The question which will be asked to Scottish voters will be: “Should Scotland be an independent country? Yes/No.” This represents a change from the initial question, which originally was: ”Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” The Scottish government was forced to change the wording of the initial question as it was deemed too biased by the Electoral Commission in charge of evaluating the question. The question of a potential independence of Scotland vis-à-vis the UK is crucial not only from a British Union point of view, it also raises fundamental questions for Scotland and the European Union, and also for the EU as a whole.

This general context of uncertainty is reinforced by David Cameron’s speech for a “new settlement” of Britain in Europe. UK Prime Minister David Cameron promised in his January 2013 speech a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, if the Conservative Party wins the next 2015 general election. The referendum evoked by David Cameron could have an impact on Scotland, as Scotland wants to stay in the EU and to benefit from the current UK exemptions settled in the EU treaties. Consequently, Scotland might go from one Union to another on its own. However, the terms of its membership in the European Union remain blurred.

Scotland and the European Union

Scotland’s independence raises many unanswered questions from a European Union point of view. In fact, no state that seceded from one given original member state of the EU has ever joined the European Union. This opens the question of regionalism. If Scotland is granted independence and automatically preserves its membership in the European Union, as advocated by the SNP, this would constitute a precedent for other regional entities, such as Catalonia or Basque country. This would create an incentive to secede, while at the same time keeping their status within the EU. José Manuel Barroso’s declaration in 2012 has stirred controversy and added fuel to the yes/no debate over Scottish independence and the implication the latter might have upon EU membership.

Barroso declared that: "What I said, and it is our doctrine and it is clear since 2004 in legal terms, if one part of a country - I am not referring now to any specific one - wants to become an independent state, of course as an independent state it has to apply to the European membership according to the rules - that is obvious," or again: “For European Union purposes, from a legal point of view, it is certainly a new state. If a country becomes independent it is a new state and has to negotiate with the EU." Consequently, not only Scotland’s case is unique, as the EU has never experienced such a situation, but it also engenders an undefined answer from Brussels. Barroso does not agree with the SNP’s wish and is not specific at the same time.

One reason why it is the case is because of the silence of the EU treaties. The Treaty on European Union only stipulates in article 49 that for a new state to be admitted into the Union, it has to be unanimously approved by the Council of Ministers. This decision should also be ratified by the twenty-seven member states. However, the treaty is silent when it comes to secession states. Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently argued that: "We have always said that the specific terms of Scotland's continued EU membership as an independent nation will be negotiated - but the crucial point is that these negotiations will take place from within the EU, because in the period immediately following a 'Yes' vote in the referendum, Scotland will still be part of the UK and the EU.” Consequently, Sturgeon has qualified the SNP initial claim, making a plea for negotiations and going against Barroso’s recent declaration that Scotland would have to apply for EU membership just as Iceland or Serbia.

Scotland’s case is even more controversial as its rights are enshrined in those of the UK regarding EU membership. Scotland would like to continue being a member of the EU on its own, while conserving the current UK exemptions and opt-outs from the EU treaties. For instance, Scotland wants to stay out of the Eurozone. It also wishes to keep the same current exemptions as the UK in the area of Justice and Home Affairs.


Former European Court judge, Professor Sir David Edward, recently argued that: “The outcome of such negotiations, unless they failed utterly, would be agreed amendment of the existing Treaties, not a new Accession Treaty." Consequently, it seems that as the Treaties are silent, the final outcome may depend on political cooperation and once again on the EU’s ability to compromise. Nevertheless, this has yet to be confirmed by the 2014 independence referendum, in a general context that might be complicated by the perspective of a UK referendum precisely on the terms of UK membership.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe

To read

  • Breslin, Jeff. “Five reasons Scotland shouldn’t panic about staying in the EU.” The December 10, 2012
  • Carell, Severin. “Scotland calls for urgent talks over EU membership.” The Guardian. December 10, 2012
  • Philip, Andy. “’Fundamentally confused:’ Alex Salmond slams David Cameron’s EU speech.” The Independent. January 23, 2013
  • Wright, Oliver. “Scottish Government forced to change ‘biased’ independence referendum question.” The Independent. January 30, 2013
  • “Scottish independence Sir David Edward says Jose Manuel Barroso ‘wrong’ on the EU.” BBC News. December 17, 2012
  • “Scottish independence: SNP confirms referendum question.” BBC News. November 9, 2012
  • “Scottish independence: EC’s Barroso says new states need ‘apply to join EU’.” BBC News. December 10, 2012
  • Duncan, AAM. Scotland: the making of the kingdom. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975
  • European Commission. Representation in the United Kingdom. Scotland: in the European Union.  European Commission in the U.K., 1995
  • Lynch Michael. Scotland: a new history. London: Pimlico, 1992


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