When Alex Salmond and the SNP look back on 2012, one of the thorniest issues they will be contemplating will be the issue of Europe.
The embarrassment caused to the Scottish government just a matter of months ago as deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, told MSPs no legal advice had been sought on the status of an independent Scotland vis-à-vis the European Union was palpable.
Sturgeon contradicted comments made by Alex Salmond in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil and the Scottish government’s own legal action to prevent the publication of legal advice that never existed.
If that was bad though, today things have become even worse. On the very day MSPs gather for the regular bear knuckle slog that is First Minister’s Questions, the European Commission has seemingly shot a hole right through the heart of the SNP’s belief that if Scotland goes it alone it would somehow automatically be entitled to a place in the EU.
The Scotsman today quotes a letter sent from the European Commission to a sub-committee of the House of Lords economic affairs committee stating in no uncertain language an independent Scotland would have to reapply to join the European top club.
The letter, the paper says, states:
“If a territory of a member state ceases to be part of that member state because it has become an independent state then the treaties would cease to apply to that territory.”
Such a situation, the letter continues, would make Scotland a “third country”, the technical jargon for a European state outside the EU which would need to apply to join.
Explaining the rest of the UK would remain in the Union, the letter concludes that Scotland would need to make an application to join which would “fulfil the usual obligations” and be “accepted unanimously by the members of the council [member states]”, adding:
“The applicant needs to enter negotiations with the member states.”
The letter follows comments made in October by the Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, to the country’s Senate in which he said:
“In the hypothetical case of independence, Scotland would have to join the queue and ask to be admitted.”
In continuing the Scottish government’s line that an independent Scotland would continue to be an EU member, the Scotsman quotes a spokesperson for the Scottish Government as saying:
“Immediately following a ‘Yes’ vote in autumn 2014, Scotland will still be part of the UK. Negotiations will then take place on the transfer of powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament along with negotiations on the specific terms of an independent Scotland’s continued membership of the European Union.
“Ministers have always been clear that these negotiations will be needed – but the crucial point is that they will take place from within the EU.
“Scotland has been an integral part of the European Union for almost four decades and an independent Scotland will continue in EU membership. As legal, constitutional and European experts have confirmed, Scotland is part of the territory of the European Union and the people of Scotland are citizens of the EU, and there is no provision for those circumstances to change upon independence.”
For both the UK government and Labour, however, the letter from the Commission confirms their suspicions.
A spokesperson for the Scotland Office explained:
“The UK government has been consistent and clear in its view that an independent Scotland would most likely need to seek re-entry into the EU on renegotiated terms.
“The Scottish government has failed to acknowledge this point or address the issues it raises from agricultural support, to fish quotas, to structural funds. People in Scotland have a right to know the full implications if Scotland were to leave the UK family.”
And the Scottish Labour peer, Lord George Foulkes, who is on the committee, said:
“I understand [the president of the European Commission] Jose Manuel Barosso will be replying to the [Lords] economic affairs sub committee on the economic impact of separation and we have had evidence here in Brussels confirming Scotland would have to seek accession to the European Union.”
• David Miliband: Scotland can’t just “leave the UK on Friday, join the EU on Monday” – November 24th, 2012
• Legal ding-dong on EU advice as Clegg wades in to Holyrood scrap – November 2nd, 2012
• Advice? What advice? Salmond finds himself in more hot water over EU ‘lies’ – October 29th, 2012