Spain’s intervention is a reminder Scottish independence could work nicely for the EU

So long as the SNP steers clear of Catalonia, Scotland would just be another small country in a union designed to accommodate them. 

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In Scotland, there is a trend for making your own Catalan flag waistcoat, judging by the garb of the pro-independence marchers on the weekend of the Scottish National Party’s conference in October. The Spanish government’s crackdown on the Catalonian political class after an illegal referendum spawned the hashtag #ScotsforCatalonia. You can even buy Scotland and Catalonia flag tiepins on Amazon.

So it might seem strange that the Spanish foreign minister could speculate on whether “the United Kingdom will split apart before Spain”. Or, more crucially, when asked whether Spain would accept the application of an independent Scotland to join the EU, answer: “Why not?”

His words were excitedly picked up by pro- and anti-Brexit newspapers alike. “Scotland is FREE to join EU, says Spain,” reported the Express – the same paper that in 2016 warned “Disaster for Sturgeon as Spain BACKS May over plans to block Scottish independence vote.”

In fact, Spain has never said it would veto Scotland entering the EU. Instead it has said exactly what it is still saying: that Scotland would have to exit the EU, become independent, and reapply.

As I wrote in 2016, that is not as arduous as it sounds. Scotland is a liberal democracy with regulations in line with EU standards. Indeed, a former World Trade Organisation chief told me Scotland would have “zero technical problems”. So long as it didn’t threaten Spanish unity, in the wake of Brexit, for the EU, an independent Scotland eagerly rejoining would be something of a PR coup.

The SNP leadership, unlike its waistcoat-wearing supporters, understands that this is a political not a technical game – hence senior politicians have been muted over the plight of their Catalonian comrades, preferring to stress the benefits of the democratic process rather than appear to meddle in another country’s affairs. While happy to embrace Catalan’s carnival culture, the SNP is less keen to import the tactics of civil disobedience.

Indeed, aware that a second independence referendum is still a potential vote-loser, the SNP has been emphasising its willingness to make the best of a bad situation on Brexit, with Nicola Sturgeon flying down to meet Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier this week.

Of course, Spain is also playing a political game – and the foreign minister’s comments come days before a crunch UK-EU summit in Brussels, when the British press is primed for EU threats.

But the intervention should be a reminder that Scottish independence, while frequently depicted as radical or ludicrous by the British press, is fairly comprehensible to a union that includes Austria (population 8.8m), Finland (5.5m) and Estonia (1.3m). Whether it’s the UK or the EU, the idea of a small country existing in a larger political and economic union is a model that can work.

The challenge for the SNP is not persuading Europhiles that they could have a future in the EU through Scottish independence: it is persuading the third of its supporters who voted Leave to don the blue and yellow-starred waistcoats and jump aboard. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.