Brexit, Scottish Independence and Leaving a Union: Lessons to Learn? – New Policy Paper

22 February 2019
Policy paper from the Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER) by Dr Kirsty Hughes
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The paper published today is authored by Dr Kirsty Hughes, Director of SCER. It addresses the question of whether the UK leaving the European Union is similar or different to an independent Scotland leaving the UK. This is addressed across nine main issues. The paper compares the UK leaving the EU with a deal, including an indefinite customs union, with Scotland leaving the UK and being in/acceding to the EU.

Dr Kirsty Hughes said:

“There are, unsurprisingly, similarities and differences between the Brexit process and a likely future independence process. But overall the two are more different than similar. This is not surprising, given that the UK is a sovereign state (whether in or outside the EU) while Scotland today is not a state but would become one on independence.”

She continued:

“If an independent Scotland were in the European Union, there would be more clarity over its future position and over a chunk of its future relationship with the UK, than the UK has in terms of its future relationship with the EU.”

The paper sets out a detailed and in-depth analysis. A summary of the key points on the nine areas follows:

(1) Sovereignty

The UK is and remains a sovereign state, Scotland would become one – leaving the EU and leaving the UK is not the same here.

(2) Democracy

There is a similarity in rhetoric on ‘taking back control’ but there is again more difference here. Scotland would acquire much more democratic say over a whole host of policies. The one potential similarity here is that the UK on Brexit may become a rule-taker if it aligns closely to the EU – and if Scotland followed an ‘independent-lite’ route (eg on the currency) it could also become in part a rule-taker.

(3) The Divorce

There would be some similarities here, for instance, discussing money. But independence talks over splitting assets and liabilities would be different and much tougher. There would be no equivalent of the Northern Ireland backstop and any transition would take place mainly inside the UK (though possibly not on currency) while the Brexit transition would be outside the EU.

(4) Political Divisions

Referendums can be divisive and there are surely lessons to learn from 2014 and 2016, but the extraordinary failure of UK politics in the face of the Brexit result is more a cautionary tale than something likely to be directly replicated in future Scottish politics. Nor are Scottish independence talks likely to be led by a politician who campaigned for the ‘No’ side during the referendum – where in the UK, Brexit talks are led by a formerly Remain prime minister.

(5) The Future Relationship

There are deep divisions within the UK government, and parliament, over the UK’s future relationship with the EU. There might be some divisions too within a future Scottish government, and parliament, over the UK-Scotland relationship. But if Scotland was in the EU, that would determine part of the future UK-Scotland relationship so that would, in part, reduce uncertainty. It is also to be hoped that a future independence referendum campaign would give more clarity on the desired and realistic future relationship than has occurred in the case of Brexit.

It is also to be noted that the UK will become a third country vis-à-vis the EU on Brexit. But if Scotland joins the EU it will not be a third country vis-à-vis the UK or EU on independence.

(6) Relationship with the EU

The EU accession process is tried and tested unlike the Article 50 process. So Scotland joining the EU should face less uncertainty and challenges than the UK leaving the EU. But Scotland could face a veto on joining the EU, just as the UK could face a veto on any future trade deal it negotiated with the EU. Once in the EU, there would be a power balance in Scotland’s favour, as it will have a voice and vote on EU regulations and trade policy, where the UK – in an indefinite customs union and potentially aligned with various EU laws – will have given up its voice.

(7) New Laws and Regulatory Bodies

Brexit gives some lessons on how to take EU law into UK law that could be relevant for Scotland doing both that and taking UK law into Scottish law. The UK may diverge from EU laws and an independent Scotland may diverge from UK laws, but Scotland in the EU would have to retain or converge back towards EU law. So there are similarities and differences here.

(8) Relationships with the Rest of the World

There are differences here connected to sovereignty. The UK has and will retain an independent foreign policy in or outside the EU. Scotland, on independence, would need to develop one.

(9) Borders and Economic Impacts

Brexit is driving border issues between the UK and EU – and so necessitating the Irish backstop as well as introducing barriers to trade and friction at borders. If both the UK and Scotland were in the EU, independence would not on its own create border challenges (assuming Scotland remains in the Common Travel Area). However, given Brexit, if Scotland is in the EU, there will then be some border frictions. How severe these will be, and their economic impact, will depend both on the future UK-EU relationship and the future UK-Scotland relationship. In-depth analysis is needed to assess the economic costs of frictions at the UK-Scotland border, given the larger size of Scotland-UK trade, than Scotland-EU (and rest of the world trade), compared to potential benefits of remaining in the EU in terms of trade, foreign direct investment, free movement of people, productivity impacts and dynamic shifts in patterns of trade.


Dr Kirsty Hughes · Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations
Contact Dr Hughes by email

The Scottish Centre on European Relations is an independent EU think tank based in Edinburgh.