Amidst reports last week a deal between Holyrood and Whitehall over a straight, “Yes/No” independence referendum question might be edging closer, the President of the European Commission has seemingly holed the SNP’s policy on EU membership.
In November, the SNP claimed an independent Scotland would continue to remain a member of the European Union without any re-negotiation, despite not publishing the legal basis upon which they based the assertion; by July, Scotland’s Information Commissioner rebuked Scottish ministers for failing to provide information in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Scottish Labour MEP, Catherine Stihler, to establish the advice provided, both from the EU and legal experts on the SNPs declaration.
Within her ruling, Rosemary Agnew, the Scottish Information Commissioner, argued:
“The question of whether independence will result in Scotland automatically remaining a member of the EU, or automatically being excluded and having to apply for membership, could have a bearing on how people vote in the referendum, depending on how they view the consequences of either of these outcomes.”
Whilst ministers have pledged to appeal the order to publish the information, the EC President, José Manuel Durão Barroso, has said that, in the event of part of an EU state becoming an independent nation, EU membership for that new nation would need to be “negotiated within the international legal order”.
Responding to a question from the Italian federalist MEP, Mara Bizzotto, on whether regional citizens would immediately lose their status as EU citizens if a region was to secede from the member state, Borroso answered:
“In the hypothetical event of a secession of a part of an EU Member State, the solution would have to be found and negotiated within the international legal order.”
A spokesman for the first minister, however, maintained an independent Scotland would definitely continue to remain a member of the EU, explaining:
“An independent Scotland will remain an integral part of the EU, and nothing in this answer suggests otherwise, despite the desperation of the anti-independence parties to say so.
“As many experts have confirmed, Scotland is part of the territory of the European Union and the people of Scotland are citizens of the EU. There is no provision for either of these circumstances to change upon independence.”
The Scottish government’s sentiments, however, were not shared by the former SNP power couple, the now independent MSP Margo MacDonald and her husband Jim Sillars, formerly the party’s deputy leader, both of whom argued automatic EU membership cannot be assumed.
Outlining his thinking, Sillars, who remains a member of the SNP, observed:
“A number of people in the SNP do not realise that the decision on independence, and the consequences thereof, profoundly affect other people in their foreign policy. The Baltic states joined NATO as protection against Russia, and there are problems inside the Baltic states with Russia and vice-versa. They are also members of the EU. They will be very concerned if there is any diminution of Nato’s geographic integrity.
“It is naive for anyone within the SNP to believe we can just kick that aside as of no consequence without someone in Europe taking adverse action against us. The potential adverse action against us could be that in the middle of the referendum campaign, while the SNP is saying we will automatically be in the EU, one of the EU states could say ‘that’s not true and we will block it’.
“Anybody who says the legalities will tie the EU up is very naive. This is big stuff we’re talking about. This is the withdrawal of the aircraft carrier from NATO.”
Margo MacDonland continued:
“We have still got a bit of negotiation that we would need to do on our own behalf, but certainly at this stage from the finish line I don’t think anybody can make definitive statements about what all the parties would do.”
While Labour’s Catherine Stihler MEP, who made the original FoI request, said:
“It is little wonder that the Scottish government is willing to go to extraordinary lengths - and extraordinary expense - to keep this issue under wraps. They know that their claim that Scotland would automatically be entitled to join the EU is total nonsense. They were just hoping that they could use strings, mirrors and lots and lots of public money to make sure that nobody would catch them out.
“The first minister and his colleagues would have us believe that everyone - from the Bank of England to the European Union – will be more than happy to rewrite existing rules, or make up new ones just to accommodate their latest flight of fancy. It is quite clear from Mr Barroso’s intervention that this is simply not the case. Scotland will not automatically assume the many rights of the UK. There will have to be long, detailed negotiations with a great many bodies and institutions. The outcome of which can never be taken for granted.
“We are about to enter a crucial period in the history of our country. The very least that the people of Scotland can hope for is that the party who want to break up Britain and create a new, separate state have the courage to spell out exactly what taking that decision would actually mean. Hiding behind lawyers and making baseless claims will not cut it. ”