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Scotland would have to apply for EU membership: a disaster for Salmond

The biggest blow yet for the Scottish First Minister in a bad year for his party.

Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond. Photograph: Getty Images.

2012 has not been a year to remember for Alex Salmond. The Scottish First Minister has seen support for independence continue to erode (one in four supporters have deserted the nationalist cause this year), further scrutiny of his ties to Rupert Murdoch, and his parliamentary majority reduced to one after two MSPs resigned over the SNP's U-turn on Nato membership.

The latest - and biggest - blow is the news that, contrary to Salmond's previous assertions, an independent Scotland would have to apply for EU membership. A leaked draft letter from the EU Commission to the House of Lords economic affairs commitee (published by the Scotsman) stated that "if a territory of a member state ceases to be part of that member state because it has become an independent state then the treaties would cease to apply to that territory." This contradicts the SNP's long-standing insistence that Scotland would automatically inherit the UK's EU membership and its opt-outs from the euro (Salmond having long rescinded his support for the single currency) and the Schengen Area.

In a separate letter to Scottish Labour MEP David Martin, EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso confirmed that a newly independent Scotland would have to apply for membership, with unanimous agreement required by existing member states. The latter point is a crucial one. Spain, which is currently battling its own separatist movement in Catalonia, has previously indicated that it could veto a Scottish bid for membership. Added to this is the fact that any successful application, complete with opt-outs on the euro and border controls, could take years, rather than months.

Salmond has retorted that no one "seriously believes anybody would want to exclude Scotland from the European Union". But while it is more likely than not that the EU would accept Scotland as a member, the net result of all of this will be to create even more doubt over the wisdom of independence. The Better Together campaign can now plausibly claim that an independent Scotland may not be able to join the EU or, alternatively, that it could be forced to join the euro. At a time when economic uncertainty is already so great, it is hard to see Scottish voters disregarding these warnings and voting in favour of independence in 2014.

Update: Several commenters have pointed out on Twitter that the Scotsman corrected its piece - the paper apologised for reporting that the EU Commission had already sent its letter to the House of Lords economic affairs commitee. But since I referred to the letter as a "leaked draft" the blog remains accurate.