Comment: Scotland’s new independence bid casts further cloud over Brexit

The referendum, which Sturgeon (pictured) wants to hold between autumn 2018 and spring 2019, would be a re-run of the initial plebiscite, held in September 2014, which delivered a 55% – 45% vote in favour of Scotland remaining in the United Kingdom.

However, in Sturgeon’s view, the landscape has been transformed since then by the subsequent UK decision to opt for ‘Brexit’, in a nationwide referendum in June 2016. The people of Scotland voted 62% – 38% to remain in the EU, putting the majority Scottish view at odds with the mainstream UK position (where there was an overall 52% – 48% vote to Leave).

Subsequent statements by prime minister Theresa May that the UK will not be seeking to remain part of the EU single market have convinced Sturgeon – leader of the separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) – that London is now acting against Scotland’s interests, and that therefore the secession question must be re-opened.

Politics, timing and substance

There are arguably three strands to this resurgent issue – the politics, the timing, and the substance.

At a political level, the UK government must give authorisation for the Scots to proceed with a second referendum. May and her government have consistently opposed the idea of ‘#IndyRef2’ (as social media has christened it), which is hardly surprising given that it effectively amounts to a vote of no confidence in the government’s handling of Brexit.

But the political dynamics of devolution within the UK mean that May will find it hard to reply with an outright ‘No’.

Moreover, despite the Brexit vote, there is no clear majority within Scotland for independence, and there is evidence of considerable opposition among Scottish voters to the prospect of being dragged back to the polling booths twice in less than five years, so the UK government may see ‘IndyRef2’ as being the quickest way to spike the nationalists’ guns once and for all.

If a second referendum does happen, the timing would be crucial. Sturgeon’s proposed timetable would coincide, in all probability, with the latter stages of the UK’s Article 50 negotiations to leave the EU, so the UK government is likely to push for a delay to avoid having to fight two battles at once.

There may also be logic in asking Scots to pass judgement on the basis of the concluded Brexit deal, rather than on the basis of concern as to what its ultimate shape might be.

A new member state?

The timing issue may also impact on the question of the substance of possible Scottish independence – certainly from the policy point of view.

During the 2014 referendum debate, there were heated (and largely unresolved) discussions about the protocol to be followed in the unprecedented case of a region within an EU member state seeking to re-constitute itself as a separate member state.

The constitutional headaches would only multiply if Scotland ended up leaving the UK at around the same time as the UK left the EU, or slightly after. Scotland would then certainly have to apply to (re)-join the EU as a wholly new member state, going through the complex accession procedures laid down by well-established EU protocol.

Its progress through the accession process would be speeded by the fact that it already has full regulatory compliance with EU norms – but Scotland could not expect to benefit automatically from the opt-outs that the UK currently enjoys on issues such as not having to join the Euro (assuming that sterling remained Scotland’s currency post-succession), or on remaining outside the Schengen free movement zone.

‘Hadrian’s Wall’ rebuilt

And the latter issue points to a further problematic reality of an independent Scotland within the EU, separated from a non-EU UK.

There would need to be a ‘hard’ border with England – a new ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ – if Scotland remained within the EU Single Market and Customs Union, and England did not. This would moreover run along a similar line of latitude as the parallel border which would need to arise at the same time between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

One potential advantage for Scottish agriculture of EU membership outside of the UK would be that its access to agricultural support would continue to be based on the umbrella of the CAP, thus freeing it from recurring arguments with London about the scope and generosity of its agricultural support system.

But this may be a limited consolation if the EU, deprived of the UK’s net budget contribution, ends up having to scale back its agricultural and rural development budgets to adapt.

There would certainly be no guarantee that a non-British Scotland, inside the CAP of the future, would fare as well in terms of financial support as British Scotland has done within the CAP until now.

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