Does Scotland Need the EU?

Does Scotland Need the EU?
“IndyRef – Catalonia & Scotland 01” by byronv2 is licensed under the creative commons license.

The Brexit referendum has thrust Scottish independence back into the spotlight. EU membership is key to that dream, but Britain does not oppose Scottish independence alone. Scotland leaving the UK and joining the EU helps Catalonia argue for independence from Spain. If Scotland leaves the UK, Spain stands to lose just as much as Britain.

EU membership is a sticking point in the independence debate. During the 2014 referendum, one of the pivotal arguments for remaining in the UK was that independence would require exit and re-entry to the EU. That prospect kept many Scots from voting to leave, contributing to the 45% leave 55% remain result.

For Scots dreaming of independence, a more pressing concern than the results of the last election is holding a second referendum. Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, has claimed that “in the course of next year, [she] will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023.”

Among Scots, however, a slight majority think that Sturgeon’s plan is too soon. With Scottish local elections in May of this year, Sturgeon is likely using this plan to engage her base and maintain her party’s administration. The prospect of independence is much easier to imagine than the practical realities.

While many Scots would like to be back in the EU, most Scottish trade is with the rest of the UK, meaning that Scottish economic prospects are integral to achieving independence. Scottish political scientist Anthony Salamone estimates that EU accession would take 4-5 years, a process that could not start until Scotland officially leaves the UK. The transition from UK economic policy would be a massive hit to the Scottish economy, though EU membership would ease some of the impacts. Regardless, economic separation from the rest of Britain without the prospect of EU accession would be disastrous for independent Scotland.

Spanish Goalkeepers

Joining the EU is a complicated process, though Scotland would have an easier time than most. Having been a member and possessing an economy (formerly) under EU regulations, it would not be difficult to reconfigure and be back on track. The biggest stumbling block is getting universal approval from the European Council, with one member being a particular issue.

Pedro Sanchez, the Spanish Prime Minister, describes himself as a ‘militant pro-European’. However, much like the UK did before Brexit, Sanchez uses the EU to solve domestic concerns. After all, the UK is not the only European country with regions debating independence. For decades Catalonia has argued for independence from Spain. Tensions came to a head in 2017 when the Spanish government deemed a successful Catalan independence referendum illegal. The Spanish government arrested and convicted independence movement leaders, though Sanchez later pardoned them. Hardliners on both sides tie Sanchez’s hands, and the prospect of Scottish accession adds more fuel to the fire.

Brexit has changed the status quo just as much in Spain, as in the UK. Following the 2014 Scottish referendum, David Cameron declared his support for a united Spain. When he was a member of the European Council, Cameron held the same sway over Catalonia that Sanchez currently wields over Scotland. Having lost the UK’s tempering voice, Spain stands alone against Catalan and Scottish accession.


Catalans and Scots have long seen each other as comrades, and lessons learned by one can easily be applied by the other. However, the two situations are not completely comparable. Scotland is an acknowledged constituent state of a larger nation and has a legal framework for separation. Catalonia argues it holds the same status, yet Spain sees Catalan independence as illegal. If Spain allows Scotland an easy path to becoming an independent state and member of the EU, Catalonia could cite an established precedent.

This legal divergence gives Sanchez some breathing room. Spanish policy analyst Ignacio Molina is very particular on this point. He wrote that Spain could allow Scottish accession without jeopardizing Catalonia by arguing that Scotland had the legal right to leave, whereas Catalonia does not. Given the history of violent Catalan dissent, such a declaration risks escalating discontent. Robert Keohane and other liberal theorists argue that international institutions like the EU both shape and are shaped by their members. EU member state Scotland might voice support for Catalonia in the European Parliament, threatening to shift European opinion on Catalonia’s legal status. If Scotland is not a part of EU discourse, Spain has greater control over Catalonia’s status. Regardless, Scottish independence and potential EU membership complicate Spanish politics.


Sanchez is a member of Spain’s social democratic party the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). It is the most left-leaning of the mainstream Spanish political parties and has been the ruling party since 2018. Since the 2021 Catalan regional election, the PSOE’s popularity has been trending down, and the centre-right Partido Popular has been gaining ground. It is somewhat likely that Sanchez and the PSOE could lose Catalan support if they continue to vocally oppose independence. Other right-leaning parties are also unlikely to support Catalan independence, though a more conservative government could respond to Catalan political actions in a harsher way than Sanchez has. 

Amidst COVID-19 and Brexit, the practicalities of independence can seem very far away. Many pro-independence Scots are focused on holding a second referendum rather than worrying about implementation. However, it is still worth considering Sanchez and the Catalan question. He cannot support Scotland without jeopardizing Catalonia, and a declaration against Scotland risks deepening Scottish/Catalan solidarity. It is much safer for him to subtly discourage a second referendum. That way, the question is never even asked. However, if Scotland gets the chance at another independence referendum, it is worth considering how fair it is for Sanchez to hold so much power over the Scottish vote. Based on their respective circumstances, it can be assumed that the Catalans would be happy for the Scots to regain their European status alongside them.

Categories: Debate Corner, Europe, Politics

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