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that Scotland would automatically inherit the UK's EU membership and its opt-outs from the euro (Salmond having long rescinded his support for the single currency) and the Schengen Area.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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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