Scotland’s possible membership of the European Union inevitably looms large in any discussions about the possibility of another independence referendum.
In particular, two questions repeatedly arise. The first is whether Scotland would have to go to the back of the queue for membership if it was to become independent. Secondly, would or could it be treated differently from the countries that are already in line to join.
While interlinked, the two questions in fact highlight two very different aspects of the accession process.
The Process of Enlargement
First of all, it is important to bear in mind that accession is primarily a legalistic process. It is about meeting the terms of the acquis communautaire, the EU’s body of laws.
To join the EU, a country must be able to show that it has managed to not only align its laws and institutions across the 35 chapters of the acquis, it must also show that it is actually implementing those laws effectively. There is little, if any room, for latitude. Countries must meet the necessary terms of the acquis – or else arrange temporary exceptions designed to manage a transition process. This is the essence of the negotiation process. The process of evaluating convergence with the acquis is overseen by the Commission.
However, underpinning this legalistic process is an intensely political framework. The decision to open negotiations, as well as to formally open and close individual chapters, belongs exclusively to the member states. While the Commission makes the recommendations, it is the member states that decide. Moreover, it is an area where the veto of individual members still stands. They can choose to do so for whatever reason they wish.
This has a very clear bearing on Scotland, especially in the context of debates about how it would line up in the accession process alongside the countries already in line.
The State of Enlargement
At present, there are just three formal candidates in negotiations for membership: Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.
Turkey can essentially be left out of the discussion. While it has opened 16 of the 35 chapters of the acquis, its accession path is now effectively suspended due to concerns over the political direction that the country is taking under its authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Many feel that it may never restart accession talks in a meaningful way.
Montenegro is currently the leader of the pack. It has now opened all the chapters. However, it has closed just three chapters. Looking ahead, it is unclear how quickly it will be able to close them as there are real concerns about implementation. Serbia is next in line. It has opened 17 chapters. Again, it is not clear how long it will take to open the rest, let alone close them all. In Serbia’s case, the question of Kosovo looms large. A final settlement will need to be found. At present, the most optimistic assessment is that they may be in line to join the EU by 2025. However, 2027 looks to be more realistic.
Following on from this, two more countries are in line to start accession talks. North Macedonia was first recommended for candidacy over a decade and a half ago. However, this was blocked by Greece as part of a dispute over the country’s name. As this has now been resolved, the way is open for talks to begin. In addition, Albania has also been given the green light by the Commission to begin talks.
The problem is that France has expressed deep reservations over starting negotiations with both countries. Officially, Paris argues that the accession process is not for for purpose. In reality, President Macron is worried about domestic political opposition to further enlargement, especially when it involves countries from Eastern Europe. However, it seems likely that France will relent in the months ahead.
Finally, there is Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Bosnia still remains deeply divided and politicians have done little to address the deep-rooted problems in the country that stand in the way of membership. Kosovo is obstructed by the fact that five of the EU’s member states – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – have not recognised its 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia.
Scotland vs the Western Balkans
In terms of the political framework, there is no doubt that Scotland stands apart from the countries currently in the queue. In every way, the historical, political, economic and even social contexts are completely different.
The Western Balkans is a region that has been scarred by the conflicts of the 1990s. There are still unresolved issues that need to be tackled, such as the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia, and the political deadlock in Bosnia. These need to be resolved. Assuming Scotland’s independence is consensual, there is no reason to believe that Spain or the other EU members that have not recognised Kosovo would object to its membership.
On top of this, there are significant shortcomings in terms of the rule of law and fundamental democratic principles. Corruption remains a huge problem. Press freedom is an issue in other places. There are also deep concerns about the effectiveness and impartiality of the judiciary in many countries – hence the decision to make these the first areas to tackle in the current enlargement methodology. None of these issues apply to Scotland.
On top of this, the economic profile of the countries is very different from existing members. The per capita GDP of the countries of the region is significantly below that of the European Union average. And while growth rates have been respectable in recent years, all serious economists note that even under the rosiest conditions the region would take many decades to catch up with the rest of the EU. Again, there is no comparison to Scotland.
Leaving aside the fact that Scotland was part of the EU for 47 years by virtue of British membership, the differences between Scotland and the Western Balkans could not be starker.
A very different enlargement process
So, what does all this mean for Scotland?
No policy maker would put Scotland in the same basket as the Western Balkans. Inevitably, all this means that EU members will almost certainly treat Scotland very differently when it comes to making the political decisions about whether or not to open accession talks.
However, while the political framework could not be more different, one would imagine that the formal negotiating process will have to remain essentially the same. The Commission would assess the situation in terms of each chapter and report back on whether convergence exists. It would then be for member states to make their decisions.
That said, one cannot overlook the specific circumstances that would arise in the case of Scotland. Assuming the degree of divergence that has taken place after the end of transition process is not that great – and this is one of the great unknowns of the Brexit process – one would expect this to be a relatively straightforward and swift process.
Ultimately, if the member states wish to acknowledge the fundamental differences that exist between Scotland and the Western Balkans, and adjust the wider framework of negotiations, they can – and I suspect would – do so.
To this extent, any claim that Scotland would have to go to the back of the queue may be theoretically correct, but only as a simple statement of fact. At the moment of independence, it would not have taken any of the steps to join that the others have done.
However, it would almost certainly be moved to the fast track line. From there, it would still be subject to the same checks as everyone else. However, assuming the paperwork is all in order and there haven’t been many or significant divergences, one would expect it to overtake the other countries in short order and join the EU relatively quickly.