EU Views of the Salmond-Sturgeon Saga

Kirsty Hughes | 4 March 2021

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As the Salmond-Sturgeon saga reaches its culmination, with reports from the two inquiries due soon, how is the long-running dispute seen in the European Union, and has it impacted on views of the prospects of an independent Scotland in the EU?

There is recurring interest across EU member states (though more in closer neighbours than others) over the prospects for Scottish independence, and the implications of that for the rest of the UK. But, beyond that, the detail of Scottish politics is not normally of much interest or concern. Yet, EU observers are watching the fall-out of the Salmond-Sturgeon saga. Scotland-based consuls who would normally be more focused on cultural relations and visas are sending analysis back to London-based embassies and/or to national capitals.

Professor Tobias Lock, Jean Monnet Chair in EU Law at Maynooth University, says that the Salmond-Sturgeon affair receives a fair bit of coverage in the Irish media but its “focus is to try to get everyone’s head around what this is actually about. There has been little to no analysis of the wider implications this might have, e.g. for the SNP’s chances of success at the Holyrood elections and, by implication, for the likelihood of another independence referendum.”

Cécile Ducourtieux, London correspondent for leading french daily Le Monde, suggests the whole affair is only cutting through a little: “this Sturgeon/Salmond affair shows that the SNP is maybe less disciplined and well organised than it used to be and that there are deep divisions inside the party. Which is never a good thing so close to a crucial election. But I don’t think it will radically change the view of Europeans on Scottish politics (so far): from abroad, it looks like a story of revenge and Sturgeon’s reputation remains strong.”

A tougher take comes from Giles Merritt in Brussels. EU expert, author and founder of the Friends of Europe think tank, Merritt says: “I think the view in Brussels is that the squabble between the two leaders is devastatingly bad PR. The SNP had been broadly seen as a more mature political mechanism than Boris and his Brexiteers. But now the parish pump quality of Scottish politics..is proving very disappointing.”

In Berlin, Nicolai von Ondarza, head of the EU/Europe Division in the leading think tank, the German Institute for International & Security Affairs, offers a more muted reflection: “From a German perspective, I don’t think the SNP internal row really cut through. German media have either not covered it at all or just had a single article on it, more matter of factly describing that there is infighting in the SNP and that this is happening just before the elections.” When German media do report on the UK, he adds, they tend to focus “on the Brexit difficulties, particularly Northern Ireland, or the vaccination success.” Overall, Ondarza says this could change once the Scottish elections draw closer but “for now, I would argue it has not yet resonated or changed the perception of Scottish politics.”

The Irish Times, in an editorial the day before Nicola Sturgeon gave her evidence to the Holyrood committee, wondered whether “the bitter falling out..long a lurid sideshow in Edinburgh, has become a real threat to the SNP’s political fortunes and perhaps to the independence project itself.” This is perhaps the key question of interest to EU observers more than the hotly contested details consuming the Scottish and UK media.

It is too early to say how much and in what way the Salmond-Sturgeon affair will impact on Scotland’s politics, the May elections and support for independence. Any wider impact on EU attitudes to the goal of an independent Scotland in the EU may also take time or be slight if Scottish politics is seen to move on.

Le Monde’s Cécile Ducourtieux says: “There still may be some “sympathy” in the EU for the prospect of an independent Scotland – for the pro-Europeans, it would validate the fact that Brexit was a very bad decision and process. But for the time being, people are not in a hurry in Brussels, the prospect of an independent Scotland and the end of “Great Britain” would lead to hard choices.” 

Giles Merritt concurs: “Sympathy for Scottish membership is probably as strong as ever, given widespread desire in continental Europe to see the British punished for their disruptiveness. But there’s little talk now of an imminent break-up of the UK and the opening of Scottish accession talks. The SNP saga isn’t followed closely here, but there’s nevertheless a feeling that somehow Scotland’s EU membership bid is back in the deep freeze.”

The conclusion of the Salmond-Sturgeon row will unfold in the coming weeks. For now, it looks like the SNP will have some repair work to do on their image as seen from the EU. But that may be all, if Nicola Sturgeon stays in place and the SNP win the elections. Any more dramatic outcomes to the saga will resonate much more on EU views of Scotland.

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.