An independent Scotland would have to apply to join the EU, a senior official in Brussels has said, complicating Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a second independence referendum.
A European commission spokesman indicated that any newly independent country would have to negotiate to join, referring to the position adopted by the former commission president José Manuel Barroso.
During an interview in 2012, Barroso said : “For European Union purposes, from a legal point of view, it is certainly a new state. If a country becomes independent it is a new state and has to negotiate with the EU.”
Asked about the Scottish first minister’s latest announcement , in which she said she would seek a second independence vote between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, an EU spokesman referred back to the 2012 statement . “The Barroso doctrine, would that apply? Yes that would apply, obviously ,” he said.
The challenges for Sturgeon and her strategy of staging an independence vote before the UK signs its Brexit deal increased further after the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, confirmed Scotland could only apply to join the defence alliance after it had legally split from the UK.
Stoltenberg told Sky News the rest of the UK would remain a Nato member if Scotland voted for independence. “A new independent state has to apply for membership and then it is up to 28 allies to decide whether we have a new member,” he said.
That raises significant questions for both the Scottish and UK governments over the status and future of the Trident nuclear submarine system, which is based on the Clyde, and UK airbases in Scotland.
The independence movement has made evicting Trident from Scotland a key campaigning priority but the Scottish National party’s official policy is to retain Nato membership. That may force Nato to also agree to transitional arrangements if Scotland votes for independence.
The European commission and Nato statements, which directly echo the stance taken by both before the independence referendum in 2014, are likely to be seized on by pro-UK campaigners as evidence of the recklessness of staging the referendum.
Brussels insiders would not, however, expect Scotland to encounter serious problems if it wanted to join the EU. As part of an existing state, it already meets the entry criteria and i t is predicted it would speed past others in the membership queue such as Serbia and Albania.
“An independent Scotland would have to go through the accession process, so it would not be automatic,” said Fabian Zuleeg, the chief executive of the European Policy Centre thinktank. “As Scotland does largely fulfil the [membership] criteria it would be a relatively smooth process.”
He said it was difficult to predict how long accession talks would take, but he would expect “some kind of interim arrangement” while Scotland detached itself from the UK.
Kirsty Hughes, an expert on EU policy based in Edinburgh and a former European commission official, said she and other colleagues believed it would take until about 2022 or 2023 for an independent Scotland to join the EU, even if a referendum was staged before Brexit. Scotland would also have to commit to joining the euro at a later stage.
Scotland was likely to be fast-tracked since it would be in accord with EU regulations. But Hughes added: “It’s very hard to see it being less than three to four years [after a referendum in 2019], even going through the process pretty quickly.”
Sturgeon’s spokesman said the Nato and European commission statements were not surprising, as they exactly mirrored the stances taken by both organisations before, but that had no impact on the first minister’s preferred timing for a referendum before Brexit, to allow Scotland the fastest possible transition to EU membership.
“It doesn’t change what the first minister believes would be the optimum time to have a choice on this,” he said.
In her speech in Edinburgh, Sturgeon said Scottish voters had the right to decide for themselves whether to accept the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU, but if she left staging the referendum until after Brexit, that would increase the time in which Scotland lived with the economic and social damage that would result.
“Doing nothing at this stage – in many ways, the easiest thing for me to do – would mean letting Scotland drift through the next two years, with our fingers crossed, simply hoping for the best,” she said.
The Scottish government would face some difficult EU negotiations, not least over the politically sensitive issue of fishing. Scottish industry groups have welcomed Brexit as a chance to break away from the common fisheries policy.
But the currency could be the biggest headache. The British government’s veto on Scotland using the pound in a currency union with the UK helped to sink the 2014 bid for independence. In theory all new EU member states sign up to join the euro, although the eurozone crisis has taken the pressure off euro non-joiners, such as Poland, to move in this direction.
Scotland would also struggle to pick up the special perks currently enjoyed by the UK, such as a rebate on EU payments. “From the Scottish side, it would have to consider what kind of membership it was seeking, but it could not expect any of the special arrangements the UK has had,” Zuleeg said.
Officials stress that membership talks could not begin until Scotland was an independent country – a position underscored by EU leaders.
The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, made it clear in the days following the Brexit referendum that “if the UK leaves, Scotland leaves”. Spain has long feared a vote to split the UK would boost Catalan separatists.
But the mood has softened since the Brexit vote. European politicians and diplomats are more sympathetic to Scotland and Madrid is thought unlikely to use its power to veto the EU hopes of a country that ticks the membership boxes.
A senior member of Rajoy’s ruling centre-right party told BBC Scotland last week that Spain would not seek to veto an independent Scotland. “If you are thinking about Catalonia the situation is very, very, very different to the Scottish situation,” said Esteban González Pons, a Spanish member of the European parliament.
Zuleeg said the EU should be making contingency plans for the “realistic chance” that Scotland would vote to leave the UK and apply for EU membership.
“If the Scottish population voted for independence because they wanted to stay in the EU the last thing the EU should do is to slam the door in their faces,” he said. “Having a country join would be a very positive signal for the EU ... and a signal for those pushing EU disintegration.”