What Representation Would an Independent Scotland have in the EU?

Steve Bullock | 17 March 2020

© 2019 SCER

It has been argued that a Scotland that gained independence from the UK and then joined the EU would have given up representation and influence in one union in favour of less representation and influence in a much larger one. The argument is an intuitively attractive one – that Scotland’s voice would be comparatively smaller in a union of 28 member states and nearly half a billion people than in a union with 4 members and fewer than 70 million people. The argument, however, massively underestimates the influence small member states can have in the EU and the extent of representation that an independent Scotland would have as an EU member state.

The influence Ireland had upon the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement shows the political impact that a comparatively small member state can have. Ireland’s role in Brexit negotiations deserves an article or book of its own, but the short version is that the entire Withdrawal Agreement depended upon a member state with a slightly smaller population than Scotland’s being content with it. Throughout the negotiations, all 26 other member states and most of the European Parliament stood in solidarity with Ireland, and were guided by its positions. Small member states can have enormous influence when it matters.

Even if this is passed off as a special case though, an independent Scotland in the EU would, based on the EU’s current arrangements and rules, have very extensive representation in the EU and its institutions at every level. The challenge facing the government of an independent Scotland after accession to the EU would not be finding a voice or opportunities to use it, but rather how best to use the huge opportunities its representation at an EU level would present.

Scotland would probably be the eighteenth or nineteenth largest member state. Its population is just under 5.5 million people, putting it just below Finland and Denmark, about equal with Slovakia, and slightly above Ireland. It would therefore have a similar voting weight in Council under qualified majority voting (QMV) to those countries. In reality though, most decisions are not made by counting votes in Council, but by consensus, even in those areas subject to QMV. Presidencies see failing to get consensus as a failure, even if dissenting member states would not be able to form a blocking minority, and try to avoid passing proposals without consensus unless absolutely necessary. For that reason, small member states can have influence beyond their simple voting weight, even on QMV dossiers.

Scotland would also have a veto in all areas where unanimity is required. These include very important areas such as the EU budget, tax, social security, most of foreign policy, and constitutional and institutional issues including treaty change. In these areas, Scotland would have the same raw voting power as Germany or France.

In terms of representation[1], there would be a seat for a Scottish government minister at every Council meeting, and for the head of government at every European Council and summit. Scottish government officials would be in every committee, Scottish diplomats in every Council working group, and the Scottish ambassador to the EU – the permanent representative – and their deputy would be in the COREPER II and I meetings (of the permanent representatives in the former and their deputies in the latter) that happen once or twice a week. Scotland would chair Council meetings[2], the two COREPERs and working groups when it took its turn as the rotating presidency (as Croatia, who joined in 2013, now is).

As a topical illustration of what this Council representation would give Scotland, in addition to gaining access to all of the EU’s current trade deals on accession, Scotland would participate in agreeing and monitoring the mandate for negotiating new ones, and the power of ratification or non-ratification of new ones where they are, like CETA, “mixed” agreements.

An independent Scotland in the EU could expect 13-14 seats in the European Parliament (Scotland had 6 MEPs from 2009-2020) and wide representation on its committees. The exact number would be decided prior to joining, but this is what similar sized member states now have, and there are seats currently left undistributed post-Brexit and therefore available to a new member state.

In addition to these political and government representatives, Scots would also be represented in the institutions themselves. All member states have a government-nominated Commissioner[3] in charge of a portfolio within the European Commission. Scottish citizens would also be recruited as European civil servants in the Commission, Council and Parliament secretariats and other institutions. Scottish diplomats would be deployed around the world for the European External Action Service.

There would be 3 Scottish judges at the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) – one at the European Court of Justice and two at the General Court – plus the chance to nominate an Advocate General for a six-year term when its turn comes round. It would also have a member of the Court of Auditors, the EU’s external auditor of finances.[4]

Scottish regions would have seats on the Committee of the regions, and the Scottish government could nominate Scottish civil society, employees and employers representatives to the European Economic and Social Committee.

An independent Scotland in the EU would become a member of the European Investment Bank with a board member, and would have access to low-interest, long-maturity loans for infrastructure, green tech, SMEs, housing and other investments.

As the other contributors to this report have pointed out, EU membership for an independent Scotland would be neither instant, nor a panacea for every challenge that the country would face. The point is that when it did join, the very extensive political and institutional representation Scotland would have would mean that, like existing member states of similar sizes, it would play a full role in decision-making and policy development at every level. It would be a full member of a Union in which smaller members are not only taken seriously and listened to by their larger partners, but also take their turn to lead, and often wield considerable influence that belies their relative population size.

I have only attempted here to show the representation and powers an independent Scotland in the EU could expect to have, and not to make a direct comparison with those that Scotland currently has as part of the UK. What should be clear though is that Scotland could expect to be a full member state in every sense of the world, with very extensive representation and influence in EU decision-making structures and on the future of Europe itself. Membership as an independent country would be an opportunity to multiply Scottish influence in Europe and beyond, and would certainly not diminish it.


[1] Excluding Eurozone-only meetings

[2] Except Foreign Affairs Councils, which are chaired by the High Representative

[3] The Lisbon Treaty reduced the default number of Commissioners to less than one per member state, but left flexibility for Council to decide to continue with one per member state. It chose to do so (European Council Decision 2013/272/EU of 22 May 2013) and re-confirmed this with its nominations for the current Commission in 2019.

[4] Thank you to Eleanor Sharpston, UK Advocate General at the CJEU, and twitter users @simonjbr and @Mojluf (Mojluf Cohen) for their advice on this part.


Steve Bullock | Twitter

Steve Bullock is an ex-UK Civil Servant who has worked in the Department for International Development, the European Commission, the UK Representation to the EU, and as an advisor to an MEP. He is now a political commentator and tweets as @guitarmoog