29 January 2023
The Great Scottish European Illusion
Anthony Salamone on Scotland’s widening and self-generated disconnect from the EU at the third anniversary of formal Brexit
As we approach the third anniversary of the UK’s formal departure from the EU, the forthcoming pageantry of protest from opponents of Brexit in Scotland and beyond is easy enough to envisage. Brexit was indeed a grave strategic error, rooted in a regrettable rejection of the principles and practice of European unity. Its ethos was structured around the demonstrably false premise that the UK’s relationships with its closest neighbours are not particularly important. Nevertheless, Brexit was realised. The prospects of either the UK rejoining or Scotland joining the EU in the foreseeable future are remote. In turn, besides protesting a fact that is fading into history, Scottish proponents of EU membership should concern themselves more with Scotland’s current approach to EU relations.
For, while many may consider Scotland to be a European nation, the present reality is that Scottish public life is markedly disconnected, in so many respects, from the politics, policies and traditions of the EU – both at European level and in the Member States. I have chronicled various aspects of this disconnect over recent years. In sum, the paradox is that Scotland is an ostensibly pro-EU country in which actual internalisation of the processes and meaning of European integration, particularly in the political system, is relatively minimal. That assessment holds especially true where Scotland’s lack of Europeanisation is compared to the standards of awareness and application which one would expect for a hypothetical candidate to join the European Union. In this regard, we should distinguish between separation and disconnect. Brexit has resulted in separation between Scotland and the EU, in that the former is legally and functionally no longer part of the latter. Scotland’s disconnect from the EU, in that Scottish society is removed from the debates and workings of the latter, is self-generated.
Accordingly, that disconnect predates Brexit and, in some respects, developed in parallel with the wider UK’s disconnect from the EU – yet, in large measure, without the Eurosceptic populism which resulted in England and Wales. Despite profoundly differing views on independence, most members of the Scottish political class remain European in their own identification. However, their collective understanding of the functioning of the EU and knowledge of the EU’s debates are too low to give that identification corresponding meaning, at least in respect of European integration. Moreover, the separation resulting from Brexit (which grows as the UK diverges from the EU over time) intensifies Scotland’s disconnect from the EU. Scottish institutions have no role, even tangentially or indirectly, in the making of EU law. The Scottish electorate has no MEPs or any other representatives in the EU institutions. Scotland is not part of the Single Market, Erasmus or EU regional policy. In that context, it becomes easier for Scottish political actors to default to sentiment alone on the EU.
In the three years since the UK formally left the EU, and the two years since the EU-UK relationship was concluded, convenient sentiment and recycled rhetoric have come to define Scotland’s public dialogue on the EU. It is not a favourable situation. Indeed, we must be frank: Scotland’s EU debate and its approach to EU relations are notably dysfunctional. Its debate is marked by superficial extremes, such as the opposing contentions that Scotland should and can pursue full-scale European and foreign policies in preparation of imminent independence and that Scotland has no business engaging with the EU or the wider world at all, since it is part of the UK. Neither premise is remotely convincing. Its approach is governed by simplistic platitudes, through which practically every aspect of Scotland’s current relations with the EU are framed with reference to the independence debate. In reality, engagement with the EU in the present must be based on the constitution of the present.
More to the point, widespread and genuine pro-EU sentiment in Scotland does not itself mean that the country has successful or productive relationships with the EU (at any level) as part of the UK. By the same turn, were Scotland to become independent in the future, such sentiment alone would not guarantee influence or success within the EU. It is perfectly possible for Scotland to be both pro-EU and unsuccessful in its EU relations. In my opinion, that scenario is the case now. Indeed, the present combination of separation and disconnect in respect of Scotland’s EU debate, approach and relations has produced what I would call “the Great Scottish European Illusion”. Under that illusion, a façade of pro-EU sentiment in Scottish politics and society masks Scotland’s substantial disconnects from the politics, institutions and functioning of the European Union at European and national levels. While internal and external observers may have the impression, by virtue of that sentiment, that Scotland is a Europeanised polity, it is in central respects as equally un-Europeanised as the rest of the UK.
Behind the façade, the Great Scottish European Illusion is established on a foundation with four principal dimensions: (1) lack of sufficient Europeanisation of the Scottish political system; (2) lack of political consensus on Scotland’s EU relationships; (3) lack of effective strategy for Scotland’s post-Brexit EU relations; and (4) lack of suitable action to maintain strategic connectivity with the EU. Since the realisation of Brexit, this illusion has markedly deepened, such that purposeful political dialogue on Scotland’s relations with the EU under the present constitution, without reference to the independence debate or partisan disputes, has become virtually extinct. In its place, the consumer of Scottish politics receives a diet of basic sentiments and oversimplified grievances on EU relations, propagated by various political parties and both sides of the independence debate. Absent a change of direction, this illusion is likely to deepen further in the years ahead, widening even more Scotland’s disconnect from the EU, its politics, policies and practices as they exist now and will evolve over time.
The four dimensions
The first dimension connected to this great illusion is the lack of sufficient Europeanisation of the Scottish political system. In other words, to a collectively disabling extent, many participants in Scottish politics do not have requisite knowledge of and experience in the functioning of the EU, the politics and histories of the Member States, other European languages, the policy agenda in Brussels and the strategic debates on the future of Europe. Expertise on all these domains exists within Scottish society, but the political system as a whole is often uninterested in such detail and, in turn, resources are not effectively marshalled. It should be evident that Scottish politics cannot sustain a productive dialogue on EU affairs without its participants possessing a minimum level of relevant knowledge on the EU. Moreover, such dialogue cannot rest solely on the small number of individuals who do have deep expertise and experience. To support Europeanisation, European Merchants recently launched a new online course, Introduction to the European Union. Ultimately, a genuine EU debate will depend in part on whether Scottish political actors enhance their awareness of the EU.
The second dimension is the lack of political consensus on Scotland’s EU relationships. It is seemingly now standard for opinions on the Scottish Government’s EU engagement to be governed by views on independence. Conflation between Scotland’s EU relations and its independence debate is regular – by those on both sides of the divide. Such conflation should be inaccurate. However, as I have noted elsewhere, the Scottish Government does little to dispel any impression that its EU work is driven by its goal of statehood. In reality, Scotland’s post-Brexit relationships with the EU institutions, the Member States and others should be founded on a domestic political consensus rooted in the present constitution. It should be entirely normal for Scottish institutions to interact with European and international counterparts on matters within their competence. At the same time, that interaction should be proportionate to the fact that Scotland is not an independent state, and instead is part of the UK. The current absence of political consensus in Scotland on whether and how Scottish institutions should engage with the EU in their own right diminishes the potential of such efforts.
The third dimension is the lack of effective strategy for Scotland’s post-Brexit EU relations. Three years after the UK formally left the EU, the Scottish Government has still yet to publish a realistic and actionable strategy outlining how Scotland should relate to the EU over the years ahead within the present constitution. Its most recent (ostensibly strategic) document, the Global Affairs Framework, is collection of vague statements and worn platitudes. In other words, it is not a strategy – certainly not for how Scotland can confront the formidable challenges which it faces to undertaking successful EU engagement as one part of a non-EU European third country. Were EU relations not conflated so intensely with the independence debate, participants in Scottish politics would surely recognise that, like any policy field, it is impossible to assess whether government achieves its defined and specific objectives in this area when it does not delineate them. The lack of Europeanisation of Scottish politics hinders effective scrutiny of government in the domain of EU and international affairs. As the years pass, the absence of suitable strategy damages Scotland’s prospects for its EU relations.
The fourth dimension is the lack of suitable action to maintain strategic connectivity with the EU. If the Scottish electorate wants Scotland to sustain durable and productive links with EU partners from its position as part of the UK, proactive and continual efforts are required. As the non-EU party, Scotland must take the initiative to forge reasonable and beneficial partnerships with EU states, sub-states and other actors. Given the absence of genuine strategy, it is impossible to say whether the Scottish Government achieves any particular priorities or objectives (which ideally would have been agreed on a cross-party basis). One objective which can be more readily assessed is its pledge to align with EU law where possible and beneficial (as judged by it). Reports suggest that to date the Scottish Government has used the powers of the Scottish EU Continuity Act to align with evolutions in EU law only a handful of times, compared to the continual changes made to the EU acquis. The alignment pledge was unique – no other non-EU sub-state has ever attempted to match EU law on its own. It appears that, in practice, not much new and substantive alignment actually takes place in Scotland.
The EU membership question
Many of those who oppose or regret Brexit often focus their attention on EU membership, whether the UK rejoining the EU or an independent Scotland joining the EU. However, the unavoidable fact is that Scotland and the wider UK are not part of the EU. In turn, the consequential considerations rest on how Scotland or the UK, as the case may be, interacts with the EU in the present under the terms of the EU-UK relationship. This period is a time to build durable foundations for future arrangements. Even a path to EU membership would depend in part on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, since it would be the starting point. The UK’s history as a former Member State is far less relevant than how Scotland or the UK conducts relations with the EU now and in the years ahead. Those who truly seek EU membership must be willing to advance their cause in an incremental and sustainable fashion.
Indeed, regrettable as it may be for its proponents, EU membership is not an immediate prospect for either the UK or a hypothetically independent Scotland. For the UK, should it ever rejoin the EU, that outcome would surely be the result of a decades-long project. Renewed membership would demand a completely new Westminster political culture, one which internalised and accepted the principles and practice of European integration. It would surely require the kind of Europeanisation which Scottish politics also presently lacks. The UK would undoubtedly need consistently high public support for EU membership before application and throughout the accession process. Moreover, it would certainly require the political support of all the existing EU Member States at the time, which would likely be predicated on the UK endorsing the European project in full, including the euro and the Schengen Area. In that scenario, the UK would be a far more normal member in its second membership than in its first. Such a transformation would rest on a renewed Westminster political system that embraced the political dimension of European unity, not pretended that the EU was a transactional trade body.
For Scotland, EU membership could only follow an independence process, not run parallel to it (or precede it). At this stage, it is entirely unclear whether or when a bona fide independence referendum may take place. In turn, a possible timetable for prospective EU membership also remains undefined. Moreover, the premise of Scotland joining the EU is markedly different from that of the UK rejoining, since the former is an intrinsic part of the wider independence debate. If a new referendum took place, it is reasonable to imagine that many voters would either take into account or base their decision on the issue of EU membership. Accordingly, it is incumbent on proponents of independence and joining the EU to offer detail on that proposition. In my report, Scotland’s EU Debate, I set out 100 essential questions which any credible and serious proposal for Scottish EU membership should address. Most of those questions have to date never been answered to any substantial degree by the Scottish Government or other principal advocates of independence. In common with wider elements of the great illusion, the promise of Scottish EU membership with independence is sentiment-based and one-dimensional. Yet, it is impossible to have a meaningful debate in the absence of substance.
The episode on Scotland and the euro from last autumn demonstrated the poor state of debate on potential EU membership. To begin, we should question why the premise of an independent Scotland joining the euro is habitually framed as something which should inherently be avoided. Besides acting as the second global reserve currency, the euro is an integral part of the European project. It speaks to the dysfunction of Scotland’s EU debate that many seem to believe that support for EU membership and antipathy towards the euro do not contradict each other. Moreover, even if the consensus were not to adopt the single currency, the public messaging should never be so blunt as to reject the euro outright. Observers in Brussels and national capitals (to the extent that they have interest in Scotland these days) are largely discontented by the dismissal of core features of the EU, even by a theoretical candidate for EU membership. The lack of Europeanisation in Scotland manifests in this case through an apparent absence of appreciation for the meaning of the euro to many EU decision-makers and for the imperative of a nuanced approach on the euro. This episode does not bode well for future debate.
The sentiment challenge
Although the great illusion is founded of an excessive reliance on pro-EU sentiment, such sentiment can nevertheless be useful in certain respects. The Scottish electorate’s backing for the UK’s former EU membership, the present Scottish Government’s support for European integration in general and the Scottish Parliament’s decision to continue flying the European flag are all relevant sentiment-related elements. In the context of EU relations, the challenge is to deploy those elements wisely and not to be solely defined by them. Moreover, they should be supporting components for substantive strategy, priorities and objectives – not the strategic centrepieces themselves. General affinity for the EU overall is pleasant but uninformative. By contrast, informed positions on current and proposed EU policies and initiatives are the basis for genuine and effective dialogue, cooperation and partnership. Relatedly, it is prudent not to take popular pro-EU sentiment for granted. It is not predestined that Scotland will always have a pro-EU public consensus. Advocates of a closer EU relationship should work to renew constantly public confidence and support for the EU and European integration.
At the same time, pro-EU sentiment does not negate the substantial challenges which Scotland must confront to maintain strategic relationships with the EU or to achieve wider results on EU relations. Sufficient realism on Scotland’s position as non-EU European sub-state is essential in that regard. Friendly receptions in meetings with EU actors do not equate to any measurable influence on the policies and decisions of the EU. Indeed, the European Parliament’s forthcoming ban on friendship groups with non-EU countries in response to its own corruption crisis, if enacted, will surely impact the European Friends of Scotland group. This case is a prime example of how Scotland, regardless of its pro-EU sentiment or its approach to EU relations, is affected by the internal politics of the EU. The crisis concerns certain MEPs and their staff, not the Friends of Scotland group – yet the group may be banned anyway, as the Parliament looks to shore up its reputation. Rhetoric alone would never have been enough for Scotland to sustain substantive post-Brexit EU relations. Three years on from the UK’s formal exit from the EU, the fumes of Scotland’s pro-EU sentiment will not power much more.
As protesters of Brexit gather and pronounce themselves in Scotland over the days ahead, perhaps they might reflect on the realities of the Great Scottish European Illusion. It was never inevitable for Scottish politics and society to become so disconnected from the EU. The separation caused by Brexit is a regrettable fact to be faced; Scotland’s disconnect from the EU is the product of its own collective choices. Instead of simply accepting repeated pro-EU messages and ritualistic rejection of Brexit from Scottish political figures, perhaps those protesters might ask them some questions on Scotland’s EU relations. Why is Scotland’s political system so removed from what the EU actually does? Why does the Scottish Government have no substantive EU strategy? Why does Scotland have an EU alignment pledge but apparently not align much? Why do essential questions about potential Scottish EU membership remain unaddressed? Those questions and their answers are far more important to Scotland’s future relationship with the EU than restatements of the negatives of Brexit. The Great Scottish European Illusion need not be permanent. In fact, this Brexit anniversary is an ideal opportunity to begin meaningfully addressing the root causes of the illusion. It is high time for Scotland’s EU debate, approach and relations to evolve to match its pro-EU sentiments.