A Scottish beacon of hope for Europe after Brexit

Scottish EU accession could be proof positive that the EU hears citizens’ concerns, writes Mark Dawson.

Theresa May’s dramatic surge in recent weeks from competent but unspectacular government minister to undisputed leader of the UK and its Conservative Party are evidence that the tremors provoked by Brexit show no sign of letting up. Her entry into Downing Street offers, however, an opportunity to imagine a different Britain. What if May’s Britain were a country with a progressive government, in which every Member of Parliament supported continued EU membership? What if it were a country with a commitment to 100% renewable energy, offering to house and employ thousands of displaced refugees. This Britain voted on June 23rd with a resounding outcome: 62%, and every voting area, wanted to stay in the EU. If only it were true.

In fact, all of the above is true, if only for one part of Britain: Scotland. May’s Premiership – beginning with the promise that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – is likely to further re-enforce a trend that has continued un-abated since Scotland’s unsuccessful independence referendum in 2014. Scotland and England are drifting further and further apart, with Scots being continually out-voted on the most fundamental issues facing the country’s political future. Two years after an independence referendum in which both UK and EU leaders threatened Scots that the only way to safeguard their continued EU membership would be to reject independence, Scots face being pushed out of the EU against their will. While May now faces many challenges, finding a way to keep Scotland in the UK must be close to the top of her list.

In 2014, a major obstacle to independence lay in the hostility of other European states. In the last few weeks, Spain’s Prime Minister has repeated his opposition to Scotland remaining in the EU without Britain, fearful that Scottish success could inspire separatists closer to home. At the very least, EU leaders have stuck with the line that the only route to Scottish accession is an application to join the EU as an independent state and after a formal exit of the UK has occurred.

This timidity should be rejected on both legal and ethical grounds. Legally, Scotland’s five and a half million residents are EU citizens and entitled to the rights that citizenship of the Union endows. The enjoyment of those rights is not, as Donald Tusk has recently argued, an ‘internal British matter’ but a matter for the Union itself. There is little question that Scotland meets all of the criteria necessary for EU membership. The EU should explore immediately the options for Scotland to remain a part of the Union without a fresh accession process, from ‘inheriting’ institutional rights currently held by the UK, to adopting a transitional agreement, allowing Scots to keep their existing rights while the terms of accession are negotiated.

The more central point may be ethical. Scottish accession could easily become the victim of the machinations of big states. For Spain, a Scotland that fights for independence only to find itself cut adrift from international trade could act as a convenient lesson in the domestic fight against Catalan nationalism. For other EU states, the interests of Scotland could be an easy pawn to sacrifice in a strategic showdown over trade between the remaining EU 27 and the new British PM. While the EU has shown an alarming tendency in the last decade to marginalise smaller states, Scotland provides a new chance to demonstrate that the Union is a project devoted to its citizens and not just the political calculus of its most powerful members.

Post-Brexit, the EU faces a fork in the road: forge a new 21st century European state, or turn the one remaining outward looking part of the UK against integration (and in all likelihood down the populist path of the Farages, Le Pens and Trumps of this world) . Scotland may yet give the EU an opportunity to salvage something from the wreckage of Brexit.

This article was first published by the Handelsblatt Global Edition.

More about the author

  • Mark Dawson, Professor of European Law and Governance