Publications

An independence vote for Scotland – time to consider the European and foreign policy implications

27 November 2012
Richard G. Whitman (Professor Politics and International Relations, Director, Europe Centre, University of Kent; Associate Fellow, Chatham House)



"The recent agreement between UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to hold a referendum in 2014 on independence for Scotland raises implications for the foreign and security policy of a newly-independent Scotland and a ‘rump’ UK that have been largely neglected to date.

The decision to hold the Scottish independence referendum now demands much closer scrutiny of the possible consequences for Scotland, the rump UK and the other member states of the EU. Much thinking needs to be done in London, Edinburgh and Europe’s other capitals on how the two states may operate internationally if the Scottish public votes for independence. Further, a vote for Scottish independence would also precede a possible vote on the UK’s continued membership of the EU (and which looks set to be called by whatever government wins the 2015 General Election). The interrelationship between an independence vote by Scotland and the rest of the UK holding an in-out referendum on continued EU membership is uncertain.

If Scotland were to go its own way, it could determine its foreign and European policies. While at present many aspects of domestic policy are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Government, external policy including foreign affairs and intelligence and security remain under the control of Westminster. An independent Scotland would need to create the necessary infrastructure of a foreign ministry and overseas embassies, and arrangements to provide for its own security and defence policy. The major impact of independence will fall on Scotland in its requirement to create a foreign and security policy and to seek membership of regional and international organisations including the United Nations.

Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, has argued that Scotland would not have to reapply for EU membership. Whether this position is correct or not, in joining the EU, Scotland would neither be able to enjoy the UK's current opt-outs from membership of the euro nor the Schengen area. Accession to the latter would raise the prospect of the need for border control arrangements between the UK and an independent Scotland. Further, Scotland could take its own positions in the EU on matters that might sometimes contradict the interests of the rump UK.

How would Scottish independence affect the European and foreign policy of the remainder of the United Kingdom?

One area in which the implications could be profound would be the UK’s role in the EU. With the rump UK likely to stay outside the euro zone, and with the EU’s monetary union likely to be deepened into a fiscal and political union, a reduced status in European diplomacy is one credible scenario. The UK would cease to be one of the EU's 'big three' member states alongside France and Germany. It would drop to fourth place behind Italy in terms of member-state population size. It may face a diminished capacity for influence within EU institutions and its bilateral relationships with EU member states.

One implication may be diminished opportunities for leadership and coalition-building within the EU on issues of UK national interest, such as the preservation of the current UK rebate on the EU budget. Further, the claim on significant leadership positions within the EU institutions (such as Presidents of the European Council and European Commission, plus the expectation of weighty Commissioner portfolios) may be reduced. Further, the UK may experience a lessening of influence with the United States if its capacity to exercise influence on EU policymaking is diminished.

Of key concern would be the UK's capacity to exercise its current level of influence on the direction of the European Union's defence policy. A rump UK with a reduced military – and capabilities subordinate to those of France – would lose its position as an EU defence policy agenda-setter.

The rest of the UK would need to decide whether it wished to devote the same resources to foreign and defence policy. With a reduced territory, population and GDP, the UK could choose to 'shrink' its foreign and security policy, diminishing material resources for the conduct of foreign, security and defence policy. Reducing the UK's diplomatic, security and defence infrastructure would present difficult choices over what should be priorities for expenditure.

A split could give rise to perceptions overseas that the UK's weight and influence is in decline. The UK might face external pressure for its representation within regional and international organisations to be renegotiated and the issue of the appropriateness of its seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) might be questioned in some quarters. The UK’s UNSC status would be partly contingent upon what happens to the UK’s nuclear deterrent, which is currently based in Scotland. Any reduction of the UK’s role in regional and international organisations outside the EU would reduce the authority of the UK inside the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

In addition, there is the potential for the diminution of the UK's soft power. The cultural reach of the rump UK would be lessened if contacts with the Scottish Diaspora were severed. Furthermore, the prestige of the UK as a successful multinational state could be compromised by the loss of a major territory within it; and uncertainty would be generated about whether further secessions might follow, serving to question the status of the rump UK on the international stage."

Professor Richard G. Whitman is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and an Academic Fellow of the European Policy Centre.