22 March 2021

Scotland’s EU and Foreign Policies: Moving Beyond Bridge Theory

Anthony Salamone on the diplomatic strategy of a Scottish state and the balance between EU membership and the UK bilateral relationship

Anthony Salamone

At present, the debate on Scotland’s prospective EU and foreign policies under independence remains nascent in every respect. While it would be feasible for a Scottish state to become a successful European actor with influence in the EU and the world, relative to its size and position, establishing and maintaining such a role would demand that Scotland recognise its circumstances, respond innovatively and create opportunities.

A more detailed and engaging discussion on the European and global role of an independent Scotland would serve the public well in the event of a future referendum. Should the people choose statehood, a mature and substantive dialogue on European and international affairs would be existential to constructing an effective state. All parts of the Scottish public sphere have a role to play in improving our discourse in that regard.

In my assessment, engineering the European and foreign policies of a Scottish state would require three core components: principles, institutions and strategy. Principles would include the foundational values of the state and its strategic national interests, along with definitional decisions, such as whether to join the European Union. Institutions would encompass the ministry of foreign affairs, the diplomatic service and the systems and structures to design, conduct and evaluate policy. Strategy would incorporate the guiding tenets and primary objectives of policy and the corresponding perspectives to be adopted.

Of these three components, the independence debate currently features only some elements of principles – such as Scotland’s relationship with the EU (and then only at a most general level), its approach to multilateralism (mainly as contrasted with that of the UK Government) and its policy on nuclear weapons (again, as compared to the UK Government). Discussion of the distinct principles that would underpin Scotland’s European and international relations, without reference to the UK, is minimal. Any on institutions and strategy is non-existent.

For as long as these vital aspects are absent, the conversation on Scotland’s EU and foreign policies under independence will be insufficient. Particularly if a new referendum is held, an incomplete picture would not benefit the public. Scotland’s EU Blueprint and Scotland’s Global Blueprint thoroughly consider principles and institutions and initially assess strategy for EU membership and foreign policy, respectively. Catalysing a fuller debate now requires further conceptualisation of the strategy dimension.

Scotland’s position in the EU-UK relationship

As an independent state, Scotland would build its bespoke European and foreign policies. It would be unworkable to create the Scottish state through a process of continual comparison with the UK. Scotland would have to make its own choices, based on its own circumstances. This imperative is especially applicable for EU membership. An independent Scotland must pursue the relationship with the EU which aligns with its values and interests, regardless of the decisions of the UK. Given the pro-European sentiment of the Scottish public, that course would surely be for Scotland to join the European Union.

With Scottish independence, an inevitable consequence would be the progressive divergence between Scotland and the UK – politically and otherwise. Should Scotland decide to join the EU, that divergence would be accelerated, intensified and codified. While the Scottish state would prefer that the UK had not withdrawn from the EU and adopted a minimal relationship with it, Scottish strategy would be founded on fully integrating Scotland into the EU, making it an effective EU Member State and ensuring its success in the EU and the world.

Considering these strategic priorities, it becomes necessary to address a circulating concept – what I would call the ‘Bridge Theory’. Under this logic, an independent Scotland should seek to act as a political and diplomatic bridge between the EU and the UK. The implication is that this function would be a central aspect of Scottish diplomatic strategy. In reality, it would be neither feasible nor advisable for Scotland to undertake such a role. The various reasons for its unsuitably demonstrate the dynamics of the balance which a Scottish state would have to establish between EU membership and its UK bilateral relationship.

On the EU-UK relationship, Scotland would not be neutral. From the point of its application to join the EU, and throughout the pre-accession period, it would be transitioning to the EU side. Once a Member State, Scotland would be an integral part of the EU and committed to a shared European future. In respect of the Union directly, relations with the United Kingdom would be conducted primarily by the European Commission and the European External Action Service. Along with the other Member States, Scotland would make its contributions in the European Council and EU Council, including in the formulation of political guidance.

In that regard, the EU would continue to engage with the UK in a collective fashion. The EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement provide for bilateral institutions, including the Joint Committee and the Partnership Council, respectively. The Commission would still participate in those institutions on behalf of the EU, supplemented by its direct contacts with the UK Government. The Member States would also maintain their own bilateral relationships with the UK, while supporting the unity of the EU. Paris, Berlin and other EU capitals know London. They have engaged with it diplomatically for centuries and hardly need any introductions. Brussels, Paris and Dublin, compared to Edinburgh, are even geographically closer to London. The viability of a Scottish bridge begins to fade.

Moreover, the deteriorated condition of EU-UK relations is not due to lack of communication, information or engagement. It is the result of the Eurosceptic populism which has become dominant in Westminster. The EU institutions and the Member States are fully acquainted with English politics. Where UK politicians do not understand the EU, that mentality is their conscious choice. A constructive EU-UK relationship will remain elusive, so long as London continues to inhabit its present political unreality. To enable one, the UK would have to accept the consequences of Brexit, build a realistic foreign policy and elect to cooperate with the EU. English politics would need to evolve past its current ideological divides on Europe. No bridge, Scottish or otherwise, could facilitate such evolution.

Formative period of the Scottish state

In the aftermath of a referendum endorsing independence, Scotland would begin the process of constructing a state. As set out in Scotland’s Global Blueprint, this formative period would consist of two principal phases. In the Transition Phase, from the point of referendum to the point of independence, Scotland would negotiate its separation from the UK, conclude an EU-only Association Agreement with the EU and build the institutions of the Scottish state. In the Foundation Phase, defined as the first decade of statehood, Scotland would undertake its EU accession process, join international organisations and develop its European and global role.

Membership of the European Union would be incomparable to that of other entities to which Scotland might belong. The EU would become part of the Scottish constitutional fabric. The totality of this transformation of the Scottish state must be fully appreciated, along with the bandwidth that it would require. Scotland’s EU Blueprint provides a comprehensive review of the modalities of EU accession. Scotland would reasonably take 4–5 years to join the EU. In consequence, all Scottish institutions would remain thoroughly preoccupied throughout the Transition and Foundation Phases. The Government of Scotland would direct its limited spare energies on strategic endeavours for the new state. It could not afford to seek to insert itself prematurely into EU-UK relations or to promote hypothetical harmony between both sides.

The strategic priority of ensuring that Scotland became a successful EU Member State would demand resolute focus. In the early years of independence, the Scottish state would define its policies on European and international affairs. A primary objective would be to demonstrate to the EU, in the pre-accession phase and after accession, that Scotland would be a positive, constructive and committed member. The Government would also have to make it irrefutably evident and accepted that Scotland would never be a vehicle – directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally – for the interests or positions of the United Kingdom within the EU. Especially in this formative period, were Scotland to attempt to serve as a connector, bridge or messenger, it would run the risk of increasing such fears among EU actors, not dispelling them. Such a scenario would be highly disadvantageous.

As a mature and responsible neighbour, an independent Scotland should persistently strive for a constructive relationship with the United Kingdom. This approach should be maintained regardless of the UK’s policies towards Scotland or the EU. Both states would share a common island and retain deep economic and social links. The aim should be to sustain amicable and functional relations with the UK through direct bilateral institutions and trilateral ones with Ireland, while complementing the structures and purviews of the EU-UK relationship. Should English politics remain fractious on foreign policy, Scotland would look to manage associated difficulties through these institutions and benefit from their moderating potential.

Inherent to EU membership is that Scotland’s closest bilateral partners would be its fellow EU Member States. As powerbrokers of the Union, France and Germany would be indispensable allies for the new Scottish state. The remaining large members (Spain, Italy and Poland), the Nordic EU states, the Baltic states, the Netherlands and Ireland would all be important links. Outwith the EU, Scotland would build a comprehensive relationship with the United States. It would work with other partners, such as Norway, Canada and Japan.

Logically then, the initial intensity, even centrality, of the UK bilateral relationship to Scotland would diminish over time. Political distancing would be natural, as that would be the purpose of independence. Economic distancing would also occur. Some separation would be expected under any scenario, but it would now be much greater, given the UK’s position outside the EU and the minimal EU-UK relationship. The Scottish state would integrate into the EU economy, develop its European and global trade and eliminate its economic dependence on the UK. Scotland would surely support a future request from the UK to establish a closer relationship with the EU, where the UK proved its genuine reflection, stable politics and public support – in the measure that such a request aligned with the interests and priorities of the Union.

Scotland’s approach to European integration

Alongside the accession process, Scotland would define its approach to European integration and the kind of Member State it would intend to become. Different paths are possible. For a small state, as Scotland would be, influence and success in the EU are neither inevitable nor guaranteed. National politics, economic performance, government policy, public opinion and other factors all contribute to a state’s outlook and reputation on how the EU should operate, which priorities it should pursue and what level of integration is appropriate. As the newest EU Member State, Scotland would be entering a world of diplomacy, statecraft and ideologies that would make its current domestic politics look generously quaint.

By default, Scotland would reside on the geographical periphery of the EU. To be successful in the Union, it could not afford to also be situated on its political periphery. The only viable path for the Scottish state would be to wholeheartedly embrace European integration. Under what I would call the ‘Full Europe Theory’, Scotland would actively participate in every major EU initiative. It would jettison all residual traces of the UK’s Eurosceptic mentality and activate the pro-European consensus in Scottish society. In particular, Scotland would have a realistic debate on Economic and Monetary Union and eventually develop a strategy to join the euro.

The sustainability of the Full Europe approach and EU membership in general would depend upon building and renewing a lasting public consensus in favour of the Union. As outlined in Scotland’s EU Blueprint, a positive national story would have to be created on Scotland’s role in the EU and how being in the EU furthered Scotland’s values and interests. Maintaining public confidence would require honesty from political leaders on the EU’s future direction and the necessity of compromise at European level. Leaders and their institutions would equally have to evolve, Europeanising their mindsets and appreciating the realities of the EU.

Scottish political debate currently lacks any measure of such detail and remains thoroughly disconnected from the EU’s major conversations. If Scotland were to become independent and seek to join the EU, its diplomatic strategy would have to prioritise integrating into the EU and becoming a successful Member State. While consequential, its bilateral relationship with the UK would be secondary. As a result of the latter’s regrettable withdrawal from the EU, Scotland and the UK would move apart further and faster, politically and economically, than otherwise might have been the case. Nevertheless, an independent Scotland would need to formulate its EU and foreign policies based on its values and interests, not those of another state. Fundamentally, a Scottish state would have to face all its challenges as they would exist, not as it might wish them to be, and respond according to its own priorities.

Anthony Salamone FRSA is Managing Director of European Merchants

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