Would Scotland be forced to join the euro?

Osborne uses the most devastating weapon in the No campaign's arsenal.

The logic of George Osborne leading the charge against Alex Salmond is slowly revealing itself. The government's trump card is that an independent Scotland could be forced to join the euro, and the Chancellor is the man to play it. He told ITV News last night: "Alex Salmond has said he'd want Scotland to join the euro and you have to ask yourself is that the currency you want to be joining at the moment."

In fact, Salmond's stance on the euro is considerably more nuanced than Osborne suggests. True, in 2009, the First Minister quipped that sterling was "sinking like a stone" and argued that euro membership was becoming increasingly attractive ("the parlous state of the UK economy has caused many people in the business community and elsewhere to view membership favourably"). But that, to put it mildly, is no longer the case and, consequently, Salmond has changed tact. Like Gordon Brown circa 2003, he now states that Scotland will retain the pound until it is in the country's "economic interests" to join the euro.

But last night Osborne refused to guarantee that Scotland could keep sterling. In truth, this was a bit of mischievous politicking by the Chancellor (no one believes that the UK would stop Scotland using the pound) but the Treasury has warned that it could ban Scotland from printing Scottish bank notes (just as the eurozone requires all members to use identical bank notes) and ensure that it has no say over valuation decisions, a situation comparable to Kosovo's membership of the euro.

The SNP has since come out fighting, declaring that "the more a Tory chancellor tries to lay down the law to Scotland, the stronger support for independence will become" but this is uncomfortable territory for the party. A spokesman for John Swinney, the Scottish finance secretary, insisted that the currency situation was "crystal clear" but in reality it is several shades of grey.

EU law currently requires all new member states to join the euro area once the necessary conditions are fulfilled. As a briefing note by the House of Commons library states:

EU Member States, with the exception of Denmark and the UK, are expected to join the single currency if and when they meet the criteria. Five of the twelve states joining the EU since 2004 have gone on to join the euro. Whether Scotland joined the euro would have implications for its post-independence monetary policy, and the size of its liability for loans provided to countries facing sovereign debt problems.

Whether or not Scotland kept the UK's derogation from the euro would be dependent on the will of other EU member states. There is no precedent for a devolved part of an EU country becoming independent. For once, we really would be in uncharted territory.

Thus, there is sufficient legal uncertainty for Osborne to speculate that Scotland could be forced to join the euro. And that is the most devastating weapon in the No campaign's arsenal.

Update: I should have added that Sweden, of course, has no official opt-out from the euro but has not joined the single currency after voting no in the 2003 referendum. The country is not party to the ERM II Central Bank Agreement (part of the criteria for euro membership) giving it a de facto opt-out.

Should this precedent apply to an independent Scotland, it would similarly not be forced to join. But this is hardly the cast-iron guarantee that many Scottish voters will want.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.