Press release

Prospects of EU membership for a newly independent Scotland

Transcript of Minister for Europe David Lidington comments to media on the prospects of EU membership for a newly independent Scotland.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government


Ahead of the publication of the Scotland Analysis Paper ‘EU and International Issues’ on Friday 17 January, Minister for Europe David Lidington gave interviews to ITV Borders and BBC Scotland. Below are extracts from the interviews.

What would it mean for an independent Scotland, if it wanted to join the EU?

It would have to have the unanimous agreement of every other EU country, not just in principle but on the detail, the budget, border controls, the euro as the currency, fishing rights. So it would be a complicated negotiation and the record of other countries joining the EU is that this takes years not months.

With your experience of EU accession states, what is your opinion of Scotland’s chance of joining the EU?

I’ve been sat around the EU table for the last three years for many discussions about EU enlargement. It is the complexity, the time-consuming nature of those negotiations, that the people of Scotland ought to bear in mind. It isn’t straightforward. You have got to think about things like who gets which EU fishing rights, like the borders and how can you have free movement of people. Do you need border controls? Do you have to have the euro as your currency? What’s your position on the EU budget? How much would Scottish taxpayers have to pay in? And I think that it would be significantly more than they’re doing as UK citizens at the moment.

Alex Salmond has given himself a fairly small window of time in which to deliver EU member status before Scotland officially becomes independent. Can he do it in that timescale?

Well, the most recent EU member to join is Croatia and that took about ten years. Now, even though Scotland has already implemented EU law as part of the United Kingdom, they would have to have unanimous agreement from 28 different countries for Scotland’s membership, and with all the detail sorted out - on the border, on the euro, on fishing rights and on the budget. It’s very far from straightforward.

Essentially what Alex Salmond says as well, is that Scotland would be the first piece of work on the EU’s desk and that the EU would be looking at Scotland’s case urgently. Is that a correct assumption - or would they go the bottom of the pile?

I don’t think he can make any assumptions at all. We’ve had statements from President Barroso, President of the EU Commission, and from [Herman] van Rompuy, President of the EU Council, that if Scotland walks away from the United Kingdom, then Scotland takes herself, from the point of independence, outside the EU and she must apply for EU membership and get everybody’s unanimous agreement to do that. And that doesn’t just mean, in principle, it means all the detail. For every other new member that has joined, we have been looking at years not months.

So it would be impractical that on 24 March 2016, the date that the Scottish Government have set for independence, that an independent Scotland would be in the EU?

On the basis of my experience as Minister for Europe for nearly four years, I find that a very implausible plan.

So you are saying that there is no automatic right for an independent Scotland to join the EU?

It is not only me that is saying that there is no automatic right to join the EU, or for that matter the United Nations or the Commonwealth, it is the President of the EU Commission, Mr. Barroso, [and] the President of the EU Council, Mr. van Rompuy, who are saying if part of an EU member state decides to walk away, to leave that member state, then they have to apply for membership and everything to do with new EU membership which requires every existing EU member to agree unanimously to that, and to all the terms and conditions.

What you are you getting from your counterparts in other EU member states? Spain has been sceptical, Romania has been sceptical about Scotland joining the EU. What are your counterparts saying?

Ministers of other countries have been careful to respect the democratic decision that the people of Scotland are going to take about whether they leave the United Kingdom or whether they stay, but we’ve had very clear statements from the Prime Minister of Spain amongst others that the legal position is that if Scotland decides to walk away from the UK, she walks away from the EU at the same time and from the Commonwealth and from the United Nations and from NATO. And all those international relationships would have to be negotiated from scratch.

And from negotiations that you have with Britain’s counterparts in the EU, how likely is it that we would get unanimity?

What I can say is that people around Europe will also have democratic concerns of their own. Let’s look at some examples. There’ll be some countries that have secession movements of their own that makes them cautious about giving the green light, there’ll be countries in eastern Europe who have a very practical concern that they are on a slow path to getting agricultural receipts from the EU, and I doubt they would be happy for Scotland to leapfrog them and get all the agricultural entitlements that Scotland currently has, so I think that there’s a lot of nitty-gritty negotiation. Nobody can say confidently that if Scotland walks away from the UK that there is a smooth automatic path to EU membership.

That sounded like a very coded way that Spain would say “over our dead body”.

Well, that’s a question that you would have to put to people from the Spanish Government. But there is no doubt that the central truth here is that you need unanimity from the remaining UK and from all the other 27 EU members for an independent Scotland to join the EU, not just in principle but for every jot and tittle. I’ve sat at the table in Brussels while we have talked about Croatia joining, we’re now talking about Montenegro and Serbia joining one day. These are complicated tasks and so far with every new accession, we have been looking at years, sometimes many years, certainly not months.

What would we see in practical terms, what would be different if we had an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK?

In practical terms, first of all if Scotland quits, walks out, she leaves behind all that she gets as part of the United Kingdom, not just about membership of the EU, the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth, the G8, the G20, but in very concrete terms, we’ve got this very large international network of Embassies and High Commissions around the world, they promote Scottish business including things like Scotch whisky, Scottish agricultural produce and beef and so on.

An independent Scotland would have to think how big a diplomatic network of their own they can afford, and build it up. The UK has built up over the years experience in fighting terrorism, in fighting international drugs trafficking, these again are services essential to the security of Scotland that a newly independent Scotland would have to invent from scratch. They wouldn’t automatically get the benefits that they get now from the United Kingdom. If we look at the UK in the EU, we have got a good deal for Scotland. In terms of fisheries, the Shetland box, the Hague preferences, that wouldn’t be guaranteed if Scotland walked away from the UK. Scotland would be walking away from all free trade agreements to which the UK, as part of the EU, is party to, such as free trade deals with Canada, Singapore [and] Korea, which are a great benefit to Scottish business.

New entrants to the EU are required to adopt the euro, and we are likely to come under pressure to adopt the Schengen agreement. The rest of the UK wouldn’t be in that. In practical terms, does that mean that we have border controls at the English and Scottish border?

Scotland, if independent, would have to negotiate with everybody else that, uniquely, Scotland should be exempted from the obligation to join Schengen. Now the UK has an opt-out from Schengen written into law, so does Ireland. If Scotland could not negotiate that… then it would have an obligation to have border checks to control the Schengen external frontier, whether that was at Carter Bar or at Stranraer.

So we would see border gates between England and Scotland?

It’s not something that I or anybody else sees as an attractive option, but the question is really one for the Scottish Government to say why it is that you think that you could really persuade every other member of the EU that you should be spared the obligation to join Schengen, [and] to join the euro one day, that every other new EU member has to undertake.

Final question on tuition fees, the Scottish government believes that an independent Scotland, part of the EU that it could carry on with the rules that it has on university tuition fees.

Well, I am afraid that not only do I disagree with that, but also so does the EU Commission. It has made it very clear that while under current arrangements, it’s OK for Scotland’s institutions to discriminate against students from elsewhere in the UK, but not, of course, other states in the EU, if an independent Scotland takes itself out of the UK and therefore out of the EU then she has to negotiate EU membership. If she gets EU membership as an independent country, then she has to apply the principles of non-discrimination against nationals from every other member state and that applies as much to the UK as Poland, France, Germany or Sweden.

So in very simple terms, Scotland will have to charge everyone in the EU tuition fees or free tuition fees for everyone?

In those circumstances, Scotland either [being] independent or back in the EU, she would have to charge absolutely everyone, including Scottish students, tuition fees or she would have to exempt everybody from tuition fees - a regime of non-discrimination would have to apply.

Further information

Read the Foreign Secretary’s article dated 16 January 2014 United Kingdom: Stronger and Safer Together

Follow Foreign Office Minister David Lidington on twitter @DLidington

Follow the Foreign Office on twitter @foreignoffice

Follow the Foreign Office on facebook and Google+

Media enquiries

Published 16 January 2014