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.

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that Scotland would automatically inherit the UK's EU membership and its opt-outs from the euro (Salmond having long rescinded his support for the single currency) and the Schengen Area.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.

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.