By now, all of Europe must know that Scotland did not vote for Brexit.
In the UK’s 2016 referendum, the Scottish electorate chose to remain in the EU by 62 per cent to 38 per cent – decisively, but not overwhelmingly, as some in Edinburgh often like to claim. Strong support for the EU in Scotland persisted throughout the Brexit process and continues to this day, and an unassailably large majority of the Scottish Parliament opposed Brexit to the very end.
Yet, as we also know, Brexit is over. The substantial task since for both the EU and the UK has been to adjust to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and their new relationship and to make it work in practice. However, the UK government’s aggressive approach has made it more difficult to resolve outstanding bilateral issues, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol.
For Scotland, a pro-EU part of an ex-member state, what now? A widespread desire exists within the Scottish political class to maintain an open and positive connection to the EU. However, the challenges Scotland will face on keeping meaningful EU relations in the years ahead are daunting.
On a practical level, Scotland must cope with greater structural limitations on its interaction with the EU. As part of a third country, it now has no formal role in EU policy-making. While Scotland was never an EU member in its own right, the Scottish government and other Scottish actors used to participate in EU business through the UK and directly with EU institutions before Brexit. Going forward, Scotland will have to work harder and invest more to have relevance in Brussels. With neither the powers nor the resources of a state, that task will be all the more difficult.
Closer to home, Scotland is profoundly divided on its constitutional future and its role in the world. Opinion polls suggest that the Scottish public is largely split down the middle on whether to remain part of the UK or become an independent state. In this polarised political environment, the question of Scotland’s relationship with the EU is entangled with the independence debate. Cross-party consensus on a pragmatic approach to EU relations has been elusive as a result. The Scottish government has also done little to separate the two issues and bridge the current divide.
Beyond the partisan discord, Scotland is further hampered by a paradoxical phenomenon: its relative disconnect from EU politics. European sentiment is in abundance in Scottish society. In Edinburgh, the European flag still flies outside the Scottish Parliament. Socialisation to the politics of Brussels and national capitals is another matter. Ask a random Scottish politician about Next Generation EU, Fit for 55 or the Digital Services Act and you are more likely to receive a blank stare than an informed opinion. This disconnect prevents a robust policy culture on EU affairs.
The Scottish mainstream media has no notable Eurosceptic elements. Yet, coverage of European politics beyond Brexit and independence is exceedingly rare. If you only read the Scottish press, you would likely have no idea that a new German coalition government had taken office, or that French president Emmanuel Macron has set out a vision for France’s upcoming EU Council presidency – let alone what those developments might mean for Scotland. Unless Scottish politics and media Europeanise significantly, Scotland’s European debate will remain superficial.
For its part, the Scottish government, run by the pro-independence Scottish National Party, views EU relations largely in the context of its primary goal of making Scotland a separate state. While the government aims to sustain its pro-EU reputation in the near term, its deeper aspiration is for Scotland to become an EU member. Nevertheless, the more pressing question is how the Scottish government will shape its future interaction with the EU from Scotland’s position within the UK.
After the 2016 referendum, Edinburgh made resolute opposition to Brexit its singular message to the EU institutions and member states. Now that Brexit is done, however, the government will need a long-term strategy for EU relations – something it currently lacks – if it hopes to forge a substantive profile for Scotland within the EU, or to develop even modest influence in Brussels. The times call for a robust post-Brexit vision for Scotland’s EU connections: one that recognises its limitations, outlines realistic objectives, keeps optimism in check and is not about independence.
The uncomfortable reality for the Scottish government is that, however the independence debate turns out, Scotland will not be part of the EU for years to come. The dispute between the Scottish and UK governments over whether a new independence referendum should take place is still unresolved. Hypothetically, if an agreement were reached and a referendum held in 2023, and the result in favour of independence, the transition to statehood could reasonably take three years, concluding in 2026. Scotland could only apply to join the EU after independence.
My analysis indicates that Scotland’s EU membership process would likely take around four to five years, if everything went well. In that case, Scotland would join the EU by 2030 or 2031. If the Scottish electorate voted against independence, or a referendum did not happen, Scotland would not become an EU member at all. Since possible EU membership is nearly a decade away, the Scottish government should acknowledge that Scotland will not join the EU anytime soon and develop sufficient strategy for EU relations in the present.
Moreover, the Scottish government should appreciate that its difficult relationship with the UK government – relations are perhaps the worst they have ever been – negatively affects its engagement with the EU. European partners do not want to become involved in the UK’s internal politics, so open arguments reduce Scotland’s opportunities for cooperation. The Scottish government would serve its own interests by reducing tensions with the UK government. If it stopped calling its London bureau one of its “international offices”, that would be a good start.
Above all, Scotland needs to be radically honest with itself about its post-Brexit challenges. The Scottish government will have to work hard just to keep its EU connections, let alone have any influence in Brussels. EU membership is not just around the corner. It is a bitter, but undeniable, truth that as one part of a third country, Scotland is a peripheral actor in European politics.
The success or failure of Scotland’s future EU relations will depend on the extent to which Scottish politics comes to terms with its newfound difficulties, and crafts a suitable strategy with which to address them. In short, Scotland will need clear priorities for its EU relationship for years ahead, backed by substantial investment in EU affairs, a more Europeanised politics and media, and a strong cross-party consensus on EU engagement separate from the independence debate. For now, at least, the chances of all those elements coming together for Scotland in its EU relations are uncertain.
Anthony Salamone is managing director of European Merchants, a political analysis firm based in Edinburgh.