An independent Scotland would find it “relatively easy” to join the EU, a European relations expert has said.
Dr Kirsty Hughes told NationalWorld that the process for the country to become a European Union member state in the aftermath of a Yes vote should be seen as “straightforward”.
In May’s Holyrood election, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP made it clear it was campaigning for independence and joining the EU, winning a fourth consecutive term in the Scottish Parliament and a majority of pro-independence MSPs alongside the Scottish Greens.
While Dr Hughes, director and founder of think-tank the Scottish Centre on European Relations, said an independent Scotland would need to meet specific criteria and have the agreement of the 27 EU countries to join, she pointed to the more positive aspects in Scotland’s favour.
“People sometimes look at the stumbling blocks and not the things that are positive, like the fact that we were in the EU for so long should make it relatively easy to join,” she said.
What about the currency issue?
One of those stumbling blocks is currency, which Dr Hughes thinks is not as big a problem when it comes to Scotland joining the bloc as is often made out.
She believes the EU might allow an independent Scotland to continue to use the pound for a couple of years, on the basis that there is a solid plan in place for a new currency.
“I think maybe the currency problem is exaggerated in the EU context,” she said.
“It's relatively unprecedented having a country trying to join using the currency of a third country, and the EU would have to consider how to deal with that.
“My thought is, as long as there’s a clear path to the introduction of a new currency, then there may well be a willingness on the EU’s side.
“They might say: ‘Well, in the first two years, you use the pound’.
“Certainly, there are question marks and unknowns, and fairly soon after joining you would probably need your own currency, but we don’t know for sure that the EU would say you must have it on joining day.”
Would a ‘hard border’ with England cause problems?
Dr Hughes also pointed out that a so-called “hard border”, which would be created if Scotland were inside the EU and England remained out, while requiring work to sort out, would present opportunities.
Although it would impact trade between Scotland and England in terms of checks on goods and services, there would be a good chance of growth within the EU which might mitigate those problems, including more direct foreign investment.
She said: “There are economic costs of a hard border but there are benefits of being part of the single market again.
“People talk about the fact that Scotland's current trade with the rest of the UK is three times more than the EU, yet in recent years trade with the EU has been growing more quickly.
“If you look forward 10 years, trade might shift and Scottish businesses might take advantage of that bigger market.”
And the benefits of joining the large bloc aren’t just economic, with Dr Hughes highlighting closer police and criminal cooperation, the free movement of people in terms of work, training and research, and being part of the Erasmus student exchange scheme.
She said: “There’s also benefits when it comes to foreign policy and security policy as part of the EU, and working together on climate change and human rights.
“A huge range of things are positive about being in the EU, and as an independent country Scotland would have a seat at the table with the other heads of state.”
But one area of concern is Scotland’s budget deficit, with the country risking starting out as an independent state with a much higher deficit than EU rules usually allow [currently, it’s 3%].
Dr Hughes believes that Scotland would have to show it is on track for having a deficit that was heading in the right direction to meet the requirement, although the rules have the potential to change by the time an independent Scotland looks to become a member state.
What’s the timescale for Scotland joining the EU?
Certainly, a lot depends on the timeline after a Yes vote.
People can get too fixated on how fast Scotland might join the EU, Dr Hughes thinks, when in reality the timescale isn’t significant.
“If you’re going independent, you’re going independent forever, and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it’s four years or seven years before you join the EU,” she argued.
While she thinks it could realistically take “four or five years” for the country to join the EU from independence day, Dr Hughes prefers to think of it in terms of transition.
“Most candidate countries that join the EU have a trade and a so-called association agreement and that starts to integrate you into the single market,” she explained.
“Yes, it’s technical and there’s a lot of criteria to meet, but the EU has been open to accession and Scotland has been in the EU, so it would be aligned with many of the rules.”