Amid the sound and fury of the now-fading Brexit debate, there has been much discussion about the consequences of leaving the EU: the economic ties that have been broken and the free movement of peoples that we have abandoned. But to a Scot considering the prospect and character of a new independent country, the question is not so much what it means to be out of the EU, but of what it means to be in the EU. Examining the shadows cast by the Brexit debate will only tell us so much, and as that referendum itself evinced, the UK’s attitude to its own EU membership was not shared by Scottish political institutions or people. For decades, the relationship and debate on Scottish membership of the EU was managed by and seen through the perspective of London. If Scotland aspires to its own relationships, this perspective must be reconsidered.
It is important first to note that the European Union is a broad community of compromise and consensus. It was founded in the 1950s between six countries previously so mutually hostile and belligerent that they had just fought the two most terrible wars in human history against each other back to back. As such, initial rules insisted that every country have a veto, requiring every member state’s agreement on every vote. Though the formal requirement for unanimity has largely fallen away in favour of qualified majorities, the consensual culture remains. It remains rare for proposals to be openly voted against (though, to be fair, some of this is posturing and face-saving), and when a country argues that part of a proposal goes against an important national interest, it is usually taken seriously.
This is a culture that an independent Scotland could take advantage of. Success in the EU’s council requires diplomacy, coalition-building, clear strategy, and compromise. While UK governments tend to have majorities, and so favour steamrolling opposition rather than negotiating with it, Scottish Governments have been either minorities, requiring constant negotiation, or coalitions for all but one parliamentary term. With a clear sense of its priorities, this could serve Scotland well at the European Council, as it has served other small nations well before; Sweden pushed for and achieved in 2017 a more prominent EU social pillar, including a summit and “solemn declaration” by EU institutions in Gothenburg, and that same year, Estonia leveraged its 6-month presidency of the Council to promote their digital priorities, pushing the EU’s digital agenda significantly beyond what it might have managed otherwise.
An independent Scotland would also have increased representation in the European Commission. Each member state gets to nominate one European Commissioner to join the EU’s executive body as part of its cabinet. Small countries often get a good deal in this process if they lobby well to get their nominee a good portfolio: Ireland’s Phil Hogan held until recently the highly influential post of Trade Commissioner; Denmark’s Margarethe Vestager is the powerful Competition Commissioner (with Donald Trump even branding her “the Tax Lady”); and Virginijus Sinkevičius of Lithuania (population about half of Scotland’s) is the Fisheries Commissioner – a post of particular importance to Scotland. Though Commissioners are formally independent of their national governments and interests once appointed, it often still helps the nominating country to have their perspective represented in important posts. If an independent Scotland focuses its priorities well, there is no reason it could not emulate this advantage.
Finally, though Scotland already had six MEPs before Brexit, this number would likely at least double as an independent member state. Six is, in fact, the lowest number of MEPs a member state can have, and is only applied to the very smallest EU countries like Cyprus, Luxembourg, and Malta, each with populations under one million. The three EU countries that, like Scotland, have populations between five and six million (Slovakia, Denmark, and Finland) each have fourteen MEPs. Even as a part of a member state, Scotland’s MEPs had an impact on the Parliament, making noteworthy contributions at plenary sessions, sitting on committees in influential positions, and even convening the political party groups they were part of. This influence could be expected to continue and grow with a larger Scottish delegation.
But beyond being more numerous, it is also possible that Scottish MEPs would be affiliated differently. European Parliamentarians organise themselves into party groups – broad alliances of similarly-minded political parties from across the continent. In 2009, David Cameron pulled the UK Conservatives out of the EU’s mainstream centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) group to appease his party’s eurosceptic right. Though this got him a quick PR win, it also left the Tories isolated in a smaller party group with fringe political parties holding problematic views, meaning fewer parliamentary resources and less influence. Though it’s not certain, the Scottish Conservatives have traditionally (thus far, at least) been less eurosceptic and more centrist than their British counterparts, raising the possibility of their return in an independent Scotland to the EPP. On a different note, the SNP sits in the Greens/EFA group with Green as well as nationalist and regionalist parties. Some might consider this redundant if Scotland were independent, and propose shifting the party to the larger Socialists and Democrats or the liberal Renew Europe groups.
This is all just a small taste of what Scotland’s participation in the European Union could be. There is no question that compromise would be required, perhaps sometimes even difficult or reluctant, if we are to be honest. But what should by now be self-evident is that the EU is specifically designed to accommodate this, rendering decision-making more accessible for smaller members and hard deals easier to swallow. This relationship would not be the one Scotland knew before, distant and managed by the UK – that other union, so determined never to compromise with anyone – but our own, and ultimately it will be what we make of it.