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that Scotland would automatically inherit the UK's EU membership and its opt-outs from the euro (Salmond having long rescinded his support for the single currency) and the Schengen Area.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

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.