Photograph of Nicola Sturgeon at a cultural event in Glasgow in 2017, walking in between a Scottish marching band.

Scotland, Independence and the EU: What did Nicola Sturgeon achieve and where now?

Following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s First Minister earlier this week, Dr Kirsty Hughes discusses the legacy of Sturgeon’s leadership and her aspirations for Scottish independence and EU membership.

Independence in the European Union has been central to Nicola Sturgeon’s arguments for Scottish independence, not least since the 2016 Brexit vote. But where did she and her government take their European strategies during her eight years in power? It looks like a case of the glass being half full, half empty.

Glass Half Full

Nicola Sturgeon must have been doing something right when the President of Ireland, Prime Minister of Iceland, and others made warm remarks about her as she announced she was stepping down. Her assured political and communication skills have helped to create a credible portrait of how Scotland would look as an independent European state of five million people within the EU. Over the years, Sturgeon and her ministers have also made particular efforts to build upon Scottish-Irish relations and to link Scotland to the Nordic members of both the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA).

Amidst the turmoil of the governing UK Conservative party since the Brexit vote, and the ultimate acceptance of a hard Brexit by Keir Starmer’s Labour party, the Scottish government and the SNP have often looked like a welcome beacon of normality to Brussels. That Scotland voted 62% to remain in the EU in 2016 versus England’s 53% leave vote is well recognised across the EU. Following the Brexit vote, Nicola Sturgeon was quick to underline that EU citizens in Scotland were still welcome.

That doesn’t mean that EU member states would welcome a vote for an independent Scotland, though many European politicians and potentially much of the wider public would see it as a positive and understandable step given Brexit. EU governments and institutions maintain their neutrality over the UK’s constitutional set-up, but the impact of Brexit has been to make that neutrality more open and positive than it was at the time of the first independence referendum in 2014.

Politics, though, moves on. There are briefings that the stand-off over the Northern Ireland protocol may be resolved as early as next week, and both Rishi Sunak, and likely next prime minister Keir Starmer, are looking to improve EU-UK relations. The positive shift in European attitudes towards Scotland may remain, but better EU-UK relations will also impact EU-Scotland dynamics as priorities change.

The Scottish government under the clearly pro-European Nicola Sturgeon has operated a low profile, para-diplomacy towards the EU, making the case that an independent Scotland would be both an asset to the EU and would not expect any special treatment, anticipating a normal EU accession process if Scotland became independent. Scottish government offices spread from Brussels to Dublin, Berlin, Paris and now Copenhagen under Sturgeon, to promote trade and cultural ties.

Such independence in the EU strategy is not likely to change when a new SNP leader is chosen. Yes and No voters in 2014 could not be distinguished by their subsequent remain or leave choices in 2016, but that has changed significantly since then. Supporters of independence are now much more pro-European than unionist voters. What is curious about the Scottish government’s approach to the EU aspect of the independence argument under Sturgeon is how low key it has mostly been.

Glass Half Empty

Sturgeon followed two rather different tracks in the first year after the Brexit vote. Getting on the front foot straight away, she met with European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker within a week of the referendum. On the other hand, her government then went down a rather technocratic side route, producing a paper in December 2016 to outline how Scotland could stay in both the EU single market and in the UK. That Northern Ireland managed this feat via the Northern Ireland protocol did not make it a feasible approach for Scotland – and it was rejected out of hand by Theresa May’s government.

Sturgeon then made the bold call in early 2017 for a second independence referendum before the UK left the EU. ‘Now is not the time’ said Theresa May, echoed by Boris Johnson just last summer, 2022 – ‘I cannot agree that now is the time’ he said – when Sturgeon asked again for the powers to hold another referendum. The SNP lost 21 seats in the early general election Theresa May called in 2017, taking the steam out of calls for a referendum then. By autumn 2018, Sturgeon backed the case for a second UK referendum on Brexit – a people’s vote – opposed by some in the SNP, despite wanting a second independence referendum.

But much of the Scottish government’s arguments after 2017 focused on calling for a compromise, a ‘soft’ Brexit of staying in the EU’s single market. The political dynamics at Westminster, through the excruciating politics of 2019, came nowhere near this. Neither May nor Johnson was ever remotely interested in creating consensus across the UK, nor in consulting with the Scottish government in any meaningful way.

Much of the Scottish government’s subsequent arguments focused on the attacks they saw on devolved powers as the UK moved to leave the EU, not least the Internal Market Act in 2020. On Brexit day itself, 31 January 2020, Sturgeon promised a renewed push on independence and a series of ‘New Scotland’ papers to make the substantive case for independence, including in the EU.

The Covid-19 pandemic knocked those plans off course. A year ago, work began again on a series of policy papers, with three coming out between June and October. Then, they stalled again; a Europe paper was, or is, in the works but has not been published. Now, it will surely have to wait until a new SNP leader and First Minister is elected.

This is where the Scottish government’s EU aspirations have faltered. There is a strong case to be made about the political and economic benefits of rejoining the EU as an independent state. There is also the argument that once independence is achieved, an accession process could be rapid, perhaps taking four to five years in total – not as fast as Finland, Sweden and Austria, but not far behind. But the Scottish government has not always put this argument centre stage.

There is a junior post of Europe minister in the Scottish government, but it has a low profile and the occupant frequently changes, where it could have been an important and more dynamic role. The senior, Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, currently Angus Robertson, does have a high profile and includes Europe in its very wide remit. Yet overall, there is a sense that most SNP politicians at Holyrood and Westminster are not engaged with making EU arguments, leaving it to just a few of their number.

And there are, of course, challenges in the independence in EU argument in the face of Brexit. The EU border that would emerge between England and Scotland is perhaps the most difficult of those challenges – manageable, but not something that would disappear over time, and with costs as well as benefits. The SNP moves uncomfortably around some of these border arguments, not confident to demonstrate clearly how the dynamic economic benefits of independence could overcome the costs of putting a border between Scotland and its largest trading partner, the rest of the UK.

The SNP’s position on currency – starting off using sterling then moving to a Scottish currency – also comes up against the fact that joining the EU with the currency of a third country (the UK) would be unprecedented, and not possible unless some special, transitional phase was agreed.

Despite these challenges, there are many positive sides to what Scotland could gain as an EU member state with a seat and vote at the EU’s top tables. But the core positive arguments for independence in the EU seem to have become relatively muted, compared to the arguments over devolved powers since Brexit and the calls for another independence vote. The rather limited set of policy papers, and the pause in producing any more, does not suggest a government on the front foot in building and promoting the substantive case for independence in the EU.

Where next?

Whoever takes over from Nicola Sturgeon, the goal of independence in the EU will not change. Those who argue for following Norway into the sidelines of the European Economic Area are in the minority.

While the most recent independence polls have moved from 53% in favour of independence in December 2022 to 53% against in January , the demographics remain striking. Even in the January poll, 58% of those under 50 support independence.

Many in the Labour Party are already calculating that Sturgeon’s departure will give them a boost in Scotland at the upcoming general election. Both independence and Europe will remain a clear SNP-Labour dividing line, and so independence in the EU should be an obvious priority for the SNP in that election. Keir Starmer has refused to even consider a customs union with the EU, let alone re-joining the EU’s single market. Nor, so far, has he suggested he would allow another independence vote – though if support for independence reached over 55-60%, pressure would certainly grow.

As she prepares to step down as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has certainly projected Scotland as a positive, pro-European country and has built may constructive relationships across the EU. Independence within the EU has been her core goal. Yet the challenged for her successor, and for the Scottish government and SNP, is to make a sustained, substantive, dynamic and energised case for making that goal a reality

Dr Kirsty Hughes is a Fellow at the Royal Society of Edinburgh and former Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations.

An edited version of this article was published in The Herald under the title ‘Nicola Sturgeon successor told to step up case for rejoining EU’. You can read it here.

Notes: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL

Photo accessed via WikiCommons.

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