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  • Policy Briefing

Scotland and Brexit: shockwaves will spread across EU

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Our new in-depth policy paper looking at the upcoming EU referendum in the UK through the lens of Scotland.

The paper written by Dr Kirsty Hughes, Associate Fellow at Friends of Europe, is part of a series of policy discussions on Brexit.

Kirsty Hughes asks what would happen in Scotland if the UK as a whole votes for Brexit while Scotland votes strongly to stay in the EU. Scotland will find itself on the horns of a dilemma – there will be major political and economic costs to leaving the EU, but also significant costs if the rest of the UK is outside the EU while an independent Scotland remains inside, with the EU’s external border then running between England and Scotland.

In the broad political crisis that will ensue, one possibility is that Scotland would push forward to independence. Support for the EU is high across both pro- and anti-independence voters. Yet whether Brexit will persuade voters who previously opposed independence to shift their views is a key and, for now, open question. Might the prospect of a border between England and Scotland, with Scotland and the rest of the UK being in different trading regimes, worry voters rather than shift them towards independence?

If Scottish opinion does shift towards independence after a Brexit vote, some will argue for a rapid, second independence referendum but others will caution against too much haste. If a second independence referendum is lost, there will not be another for decades. Yet, if Scotland delays, it too will find itself outside the EU, perhaps with little voice in the UK’s exit talks with Brussels. If it then held a new independence referendum some years later, it would have to re-apply for EU membership.

Various political crises are likely to ensue in the face of a Brexit vote. If the SNP did decide to call a second independence referendum, Westminster may not agree to it, leading to a bitter political stand-off. Furthermore, while EU matters are not devolved, EU law is part of Scotland’s devolution statutes (in the Scotland Act), and the Scottish parliament does pass various EU decisions into law. If the Scottish parliament refused to repeal or revise EU laws as part of Brexit – refusing to pass a legislative consent motion – there would be a major political crisis between Scotland and the rest of the UK. The Scottish government might also challenge the loss of acquired rights by its citizens and businesses that Brexit could entail.

Scotland’s government will surely make considerable political capital out of the crisis, calling on the EU to help it remain in Europe (and possibly Wales and Northern Ireland joining in this call).

In the face of a Brexit vote, Scotland will need to have a major national debate about its relationship to the EU and the different choices it faces. Scotland will have to decide its next steps quickly and carefully, if it is not to find itself outside of the EU, with little say in the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

If the Scottish government did go ahead with a second independence referendum and it was successful, then the UK’s union would dissolve at the same time as Brexit. Three parallel sets of talks would need to happen – the rest of the UK (rUK) with Scotland on separation, rUK with the EU on Brexit, and Scotland with the EU on becoming an independent member state.

In the end, Scotland will face four main choices in the face of Brexit:

  1. Leave the EU with the rest of the UK;
  2. Move rapidly to a second independence referendum with the aim of staying seamlessly in the EU;
  3. Challenge, block and stall the Brexit process, creating a deep political and constitutional crisis;
  4. Leave the EU with the rest of the UK, and argue for Scotland to have the power to negotiate a closer, differentiated relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK may choose.

Read the policy paper below. If it fails to load, or if you would prefer to read it offline, then you can also download a PDF version.

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