Europe (Financial Times)
Scotland’s hopes of automatically obtaining EU membership if Scots vote for independence from Britain in 2014 could be dashed by legal problems and political opposition from other member states.
EU bureaucrats have declined to spell out the legal position following Scottish secession from the UK, arguing that there is no precedent. But behind closed doors there is near unanimity that any country born out of the break-up of a member state would have to apply for membership.
“If you have secession from an existing member state the original member of the EU would automatically stay, although a number of issues such as voting rights would have to be reassessed, but the new country would have to apply for membership,” says an EU official.
This contradicts what Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, has been arguing for months. The leader of the Scottish National party claims Scotland would automatically become a member of the EU if it became independent.
That legal position gives a veto to EU capitals worried about setting a precedent for their own secessionist movements, most obviously Spain.
Madrid, which is trying to see off an independence push by the region of Catalonia, has made clear its lack of enthusiasm for Scottish secession.
José Manuel García-Margallo, the Spanish foreign minister, said last week independent Scotland would have to “get to the back of the queue” for EU membership.
“States that declare independence have to request admission to international organisations they want to join. That is common practice in international law,” a spokesman for the Spanish foreign ministry said.
Alistair Sutton, an EU lawyer and visiting professor of European Law at the University of Edinburgh, says that Scotland would need to obtain international recognition from the EU before becoming a member.
“It can’t take its international existence for granted . . . it would have to apply for membership,” he says. “You can’t expect them to walk into EU meetings the day after it gains independence. The commission, the council and the European parliament will not accept that.”
The row over whether Scotland could remain a part of the EU after independence blew up last week after Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s deputy leader, admitted the government had not taken legal advice to justify its claim that it would automatically retain membership.
Alistair Darling, the former chancellor and head of the group fighting independence, described the incident as a “turning point” in the campaign. Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Darling said: “Alex Salmond has been caught out saying something he knew was not true, and on one of the most critical issues of the independence debate.”
Mr Salmond could still pull it off, according to some EU officials, if Scotland agreed to a passive membership, which would give it access to the bloc’s single market but not a seat at the EU Council, the club of heads of state that meet regularly to decide on key union matters. Scotland could then apply for a full membership, which could take several years, but in the meantime it would not be forced to leave the union.
Madrid has shown it is ready to stand against the vast majority of EU member states with its refusal to recognise Kosovo as a breakaway state.
William Hague, UK foreign minister, has kept Madrid abreast of developments in Scotland and he provided Mr Garcia-Margallo with an official UK government analysis of the EU legal position if the country voted for independence.
By James Fontanella-Khan in Brussels, Kiran Stacey in Edinburgh and Tobias Buck in Madrid
The Financial Times, October 28, 2012