How long would it take an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU?

One of the big questions about Scottish independence is how and when an independent Scotland could rejoin the European Union.

This was hotly debated during the 2014 referendum, and it generated more heat than light. The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, made an unfortunate intervention in the debate when he said on BBC TV that it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for Scotland to join the EU. That was just plain wrong.

A lot of things have changed since then, and on balance it has become easier for Scotland to rejoin the EU.

Let’s look first at the time-frame. We don’t know when another independence referendum may take place, but we do know that Nicola Sturgeon is determined that it should have the consent of the Westminster Parliament. That’s wise. If Scotland were to make a unilateral declaration of independence, it wouldn’t be recognised as a state, either by the EU or by the United Nations.

If Scotland became independent through a constitutionally valid process, it could apply for EU membership soon afterwards. How long would the process take? Well, the record for joining the EU is held by Finland, which took two years and nine months from its application to its accession to the EU as a member.

Scotland has the advantage over Finland that it has applied the EU’s rules for nearly 50 years. In that sense, it would be the best qualified applicant the EU has ever had.

On the other hand, Scotland would need to create a number of new institutions, such as a national bank and a foreign ministry, in order to function as an independent state and pass the EU’s membership test, the so-called “Copenhagen criteria”.

Passing the test shouldn’t be difficult. It requires “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; a functioning market economy; and the ability to take on the obligations of membership”.


It’s obvious that Scotland could meet these criteria. My estimate, therefore, is that it would take three to four years, from the date of application to the date of accession, for Scotland to rejoin the EU.

By the way, I know what I’m talking about. In the 1970s, I was a member of the team in London that negotiated Britain’s membership. Later, in the European Commission in the 1990s, I had a hand in writing the Copenhagen criteria, and was one of the architects of the enlargement of the EU from 12 to 15 members, and then from 15 to 27.

What would need to be negotiated? Not much. It would be unrealistic for Scotland to ask for a budget rebate, though it could ask for its budget contribution to be the phased in. It wouldn’t need to ask for an “opt-out” from the euro, or from the Schengen area. New members have to subscribe to the principle of joining them, but in practice they don’t need to do so until they want to. Sweden, for example, doesn’t have an opt-out from the euro; it has simply decided not to join. Ireland hasn’t joined the Schengen area; it has a common travel area with the UK, and Scotland could expect to have the same.

Scotland would have to accept the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy. Now that they know what Brexit really means, many Scottish farmers and fishermen are likely to welcome that. The details of fisheries quotas would be negotiated from year to year, and as a member of the EU Scotland would have a seat at the table in those negotiations.

In fact, it would have more influence on the fisheries rules than it does now.

HeraldScotland: 1670383

The question of the currency was a weakness of the SNP’s campaign in 2014, and it remains a tricky one – whether to continue with the British pound, or create a Scottish pound. On this, the Scottish Government will need to define a clear position.

EU member states are generally favourable to Scotland joining the EU. They consider that Scotland, unlike the UK, is disposed to co-operation rather than confrontation. It was not for nothing that “Auld Lang Syne” was sung at the last session of the European Parliament before Brexit.

Is the “Spanish veto” still a factor? No. Provided that Scotland’s independence is gained by constitutional means, Spain wouldn’t stop it, any more than it has blocked seven other countries from joining the EU after they became constitutionally independent. Brexit actually makes this easier since Scotland (unlike Spain’s Catalonia) it is no longer part of an EU member state.

Let’s have a look finally at the economic consequences for Scotland of rejoining the EU. Since 60 per cent of Scottish exports currently go to the rest of the UK, and the British Government has opted for a hard Brexit, the introduction of a frontier with England would hit Scottish exports of goods. However, Scotland’s financial sector would benefit from regaining full access to the EU.

The long-term results are difficult to forecast, but it’s worth recalling that when Ireland joined in 1973, its exports to Britain were 55 per cent of its exports. Now they are 10 per cent of its exports, the Irish economy is doing well, and in terms of GDP per head, the Irish are wealthier than the British.

Graham Avery is an independent analyst based in Oxford. He has worked as a public servant in London and in Brussels.

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