Scotland’s Accession and the EU’s Common Foreign, Security and Defence Policies

Daniel Kenealy | 17 March 2020

© 2019 SCER


An independent Scotland’s accession to the EU is unlikely to be complicated by issues related to the EU’s common foreign, security and defence policies. However, the accession process is not unconcerned with such matters and a number of negotiating chapters are directly related to the broad area of foreign affairs. In order to ensure that this area of policy posed no difficulties, an independent Scotland would have to: (1) align its foreign policy with existing EU foreign policy declarations and conclusions; (2) create the administrative and legal structures necessary to assure the EU of Scotland’s capacity to participate in EU foreign policy from accession; and (3) set out credible commitments about its future foreign and defence policies and how it could contribute to the development of EU policy in the longer-term.

EU Accession and Foreign, Security and Defence Policy

There are numerous parts of the accession process that touch on external affairs, such as trade and development. The focus here is specifically on the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Established in 1992 to give the EU a stronger voice in international politics, the CFSP has been institutionally strengthened with each successive EU treaty change. In 1999, what is now known as the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) was launched to develop military and civilian capabilities to complement the EU’s growing diplomatic activity. Both the CFSP and CSDP work largely on an intergovernmental basis – member states are in the driving seat as opposed to the EU’s institutions. Decision-making is, with a few exceptions, subject to unanimous agreement by all 27-member states. Despite high barriers to decision-making, both areas have seen considerable activity over recent years and CFSP declarations, actions, and agreements form part of the EU’s acquis communautaire – the combined body of rules and laws that applicant states must adopt or harmonise with before securing membership.

The EU accession process is a negotiation – structured by regular dialogues, monitoring and reporting – organised around a series of ‘Chapters’. Chapter 31 is concerned with the CFSP and CSDP and is concerned with three broad questions. First, does a candidate country uphold the values and principles that shape EU foreign policy? Those values include democracy, respect for the rule of law, human rights, and respect for the UN Charter and international law.[1] Second, has a candidate country sufficiently aligned with existing EU foreign policy, including existing sanctions imposed by the EU on third countries? Third, will a candidate country be capable of contributing to, and implementing, the CFSP and the CSDP as a member state?[2] Some have argued that candidate countries – especially smaller ones – therefore lose some autonomy over their foreign policy during the accession process.[3]

The first and second questions are designed to avoid importing disunity into the EU’s existing foreign policy. The third question is designed to ensure that, once admitted, a new member state possesses institutions and laws robust enough both to implement EU foreign policy – such as monitoring arms and dual-use technology exports and imposing sanctions – and to contribute to its development. The process for the candidate country is a painstaking one of documenting policies, laws, and institutions to the European Commission. Fundamentally, it is about offering assurance to the EU. Commission questionnaires to candidate countries on Chapter 31 can often run to more than 100-pages of detail covering hundreds of declarations that the country aligned its foreign policy to and providing granular details about how its foreign ministry would be equipped to work fully and effectively with institutions such as the EU’s Political and Security Committee and the European External Action Service.

Another important requirement – established by the European Council in the aftermath of the Kosovo War – is that candidate countries ought to have settled any bilateral disputes.[4] The 2013 negotiating framework for Serbia’s accession encouraged the ‘normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo’.[5] The EU-27 would rather avoid importing festering foreign policy disputes. A broader principle of being a ‘good neighbour’, which speaks directly to foreign policy, has been developed and weighs on the accession process.[6]

An Independent Scotland’s Path to Accession

The EU’s desire to avoid importing disputes makes the relationship between an independent Scotland and the remainder of the UK (rUK) crucial. Although hard bargaining between governments in Edinburgh and London would characterise Scotland’s transition to independence, it would be in the interest of both sides to avoid antagonism. Two issues have the potential to flare-up. The first is maritime boundaries in the oil-rich North Sea, which would also have implications for fishing. The second is the removal of the rUK nuclear deterrent (Trident) from Scottish territory. However, it is politically unlikely that either would escalate to the point of obstructing accession.

Returning to the three issues covered by Chapter 31, Scotland meets the values and principles criteria and the Scottish government already, in its external affairs policy, seeks to advance the EU’s values. Similarly, a glance at the foreign policy declarations that Scotland would be required to align with reveals no obvious flashpoints during negotiations. As a brand new state, Scotland would be unique. Most candidate countries follow a process of adapting and amending their existing foreign and defence policies. Scotland would be developing policies largely from scratch and could use existing EU declarations as a starting point. It is likely that the Scottish government would be invited, during the accession process, into current EU dialogues on key issues and to align with CFSP declarations.

Chapter 31’s third issue – whether a candidate country will be capable of engaging fully and contributing to the CFSP and the CSDP as a member state – is where the hardest work would be required. The EU-27 would have realistic expectations of what an independent Scotland, as a new state, would be capable of in the short and longer-term. Although the period of transition to independence would be used to expand the Scottish government’s existing external affairs directorate into the beginnings of a Scottish foreign ministry, the scaling up of diplomatic and military capacity would likely take close to a decade.[7] In the short-term, and upon accession, the EU would want to ensure that Scotland was capable of enforcing CFSP decisions domestically – such as on sanctions – and that it was diplomatically set-up to participate in the key EU institutions. The European Commission would want to understand how the Scottish foreign ministry would interact with EU institutions, what domestic legal frameworks would govern Scotland’s foreign relations, and which ministries or agencies would monitor sensitive exports and compliance with sanctions.

In the medium-to-long-term, the EU wants members to play a constructive role in the CFSP and CSDP. What will be required during accession is a credible commitment by the Scottish government to grow into such a role over time, and a credible plan to get to that point. The Scottish government’s 2013 White Paper set out a vision of an independent Scotland’s foreign and defence policies designed to complement the CFSP and CSDP.[8] The document stressed working with coalitions of like-minded small states – with particular emphasis on Ireland and the Nordic states – and an intention to play a full role in the CFSP. There was a further commitment to building a 15,000-strong defence force over a decade. By the end of that decade, the intention was for Scotland to possess military and civilian capabilities that would allow it to contribute to CSDP missions focused on peacekeeping, post-conflict stabilisation, and civilian police training. A Scottish national security strategy, drafted during the transition to independence, would be a helpful exercise in signalling these commitments once again.


Without minimising the scale of the task that the Scottish government would face in establishing a new state, there is nothing in principle in the area of foreign, security, and defence policy that ought to hinder EU accession. The primary work required during accession would not be markedly different to other policy areas – it would be a process of aligning existing policy and demonstrating that robust laws, regulations, and institutions were in place domestically to give effect to EU decisions. In the longer-term Scotland would have an opportunity to play a more active role in the CFSP and CSDP: the EU-27 would expect it to. But during accession the EU will look for credible commitments and a credible plan to meet them.


[1] See in particular Article 21 of the Treaty on European Union.

[2] See the European Commission’s details on Chapters of the acquis, at

[3] C. Hillion, ‘Adaptation or autonomy? Candidates for EU membership and the CFSP’, Global Affairs, 3:3 (2017), p. 265.

[4] See European Council, Presidency conclusions, Helsinki (1999), at

[5] See the joint report by the European Commission and the EU High Representative (2013), at

[6] E. Basheska, ‘The good neighbourliness condition in EU enlargement’, Contemporary Southeastern Europe, 1:1 (2014), pp. 92-11.

[7] Scottish Government, Scotland’s Future (Edinburgh: Scottish Government, 2013), chapter 6.

[8] Scotland’s Future, chapter 6.

Daniel Kenealy |

University of Edinburgh

Dr Daniel Kenealy is a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh and the lead editor of The European Union: How Does it Work? (Oxford University Press).