Scotland Could Delay Britain’s European Union Exit

Theresa May promises not to invoke Article 50 until there is agreement from all parts of the United Kingdom.

British prime minister Theresa May and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon meet in Edinburgh, July 15
British prime minister Theresa May and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon meet in Edinburgh, July 15 (Scottish Government)

Britain’s exit from the European Union could be delayed until there is agreement from all four parts of the United Kingdom on how to proceed.

Theresa May, the new prime minister, made good on her commitment to keep the union intact when she promised on Friday not to invoke Article 50 of the EU treaty — which would trigger a two-year divorce proceeding from the bloc — until all devolved governments agree on a strategy.

She spoke in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union in a referendum last month.

Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with a fellow EU member state, also voted to remain whereas majorities in England and Wales voted to get out.

“Strong position”

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, seized on May’s comments to argue she was now in a “strong position” to advocate for Scottish interest during “Brexit”.

She told the BBC’s Andrew Marr it might be possible for Scotland to stay in both the EU and the United Kingdom even if England and Wales leave the former.

But she wouldn’t take the possibility of a second independence referendum off the table either.

Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party still calls for secession despite losing an independence referendum in 2014.

Spanish obstacle

Any attempt to keep Scotland in the EU while other parts of the United Kingdom leave could run into opposition from Spain, which worries about encouraging separatists in Catalonia and hopes to restore Spanish control over Gibraltar after 300 years of British rule.

Like the Scots, inhabitants of the Rock voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. Their livelihoods, as well as those of many Spaniards living nearby, depend on the open border between the territory and Spain.


  1. The Spanish are well aware that Scotland would be a valuable asset to them, more so even than the rest of Europe. Reasons: The Spanish that live work and study here, access to the North Sea fishing grounds and tourism drop if they were ever to veto Scotland’s entry into the EU.. It’s just not going to happen.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Henry.

    I edited out the first bit, because it was a little insulting. No need for that.

    I’m interested in your argument that Spain wouldn’t block an independent Scotland’s accession to the EU, though, because that’s a) what Spanish officials are saying, and b) it seems to me the more likely outcome, at least so long as the Catalan separatist issue isn’t resolved.

    My guess would be that Madrid sees the threat of Catalan secession as far outweighing whatever damage a loss in Scottish tourism and migrant labor would cause to the Spanish economy.

  3. “Spain has no intention of interfering in Scotland’s push for independence and is willing to consider an eventual Scottish application to join the EU as a separate state, the foreign minister said”. (Financial Times)

    The assertion that an independent Scotland’s membership of the EU would be blocked by Spain has been repeated many times. That does not make it a fact.
    Spain has actually said “If Britain’s constitutional order allows – and it seems that it does allow – Scotland to choose independence, we have nothing to say about this.”

    1) According to law expert Sionaidh Douglas-Scott of Queen Mary university in London, single countries would not be able to block Scotland’s accession in the event of a Yes vote in Scotland, and a majority vote from EU members would suffice.

    2) See the comment above regarding Spanish access to Scottish fishing grounds.

    3). Spain would not block an independent Scotland from EU membership, because the constitutional positions are different. Spain refuses to recognise Kosovo because it was a region of a unitary state, which seceded from the unitary state. (Catalonia is also a region of the unitary state of Spain). Scotland is not a region of a unitary state, but a nation within a multinational state, and one of the two signatories to the Treaty of Union.

    The 3 paragraphs below explain it more succinclty than I can….

    “There’s a common assumption amongst Unionists that Rajoy would veto an independent Scotland in order to discourage the Catalans, but that’s all it is, an assumption. Their belief is based upon a profound misunderstanding of the Spanish political system.

    Madrid’s opposition to a Catalan independence referendum is based upon a clause in the Spanish constitution which states that Spain is “una e indivisible”, one and indivisible, and that the territory of the Spanish state is the patrimony of all of the people of Spain. Madrid claims a Catalan independence referendum would be unconstitutional, and refuses to countenance one. For a similar reason Spain refuses to recognise the independence of Kosovo, which Serbia claims is unconstitutional according to the Serbian constitution.

    However, none of this applies to Scottish independence. Scottish independence, when it comes, will be entirely legal and constitutional. It will be recognised by the Westminster Parliament. That means that Spain will not have a problem with it and will have no grounds to veto Scottish membership of the EU. Back in February 2014, Spanish foreign minister José-Manuel García-Margallo was asked about Spain’s response to Scottish independence, and insisted that the two situations were “fundamentally different”. Pressed on the issue, he replied: “If Britain’s constitutional order allows – and it seems that it does allow – Scotland to choose independence, we have nothing to say about this.”

  4. Thanks for your comment, Chris!

    It seems the Spanish position is a little softer than I thought. I’m still skeptical, though, that Spain wouldn’t make it difficult for Scotland, for fear of inspiring separatists in Catalonia.

    Douglas-Scott’s claim that a single member state couldn’t block a new country joining is wrong. You need unanimity from the existing member states to join.

    Now if you argue that it’s going to be hard for Spain politically to be the only one to resist an independent Scotland joining when the other 27 member states are in favor, that’s probably true. But legally, it could.

    I don’t think the argument about the UK not being a unitary state matters to the Spanish. It’s the precedent they’re worried about and the perception. Your last quote therefore strikes me a as wishful thinking. Of course the Spanish government portrayed the situation in Catalonia as compared to Scotland as “fundamentally different”! They were worried at the time Scotland might in fact secede and they didn’t want to give the Catalans any ideas.

    But the whole point about different constitutional arrangements… Do you think that’s going to impress the average Catalan? I don’t think so. They want constitutional reform anyway, whether they support independence or not.

  5. Hi Nick,
    Thanks for your reply.
    Professor Douglas-Scott knows her stuff (Prof of European and Human Rights Law at Oxford, prof of Law at KCL and Chair of Law at QMUL) so I don’t think she is “wrong”. People might not like what she has said, but that is different!
    As far as I can make out, in the event of a Scottish unilateral declaration of independence, there would need to be unanimity from all EU states in order for Scotland to join. However in the event of a legal constitutional referendum, there would just need to be a majority as opposed to a unanimous vote from other EU member states.

    In the event of a Yes vote in Scotland, I believe Realpolitik would kick in. The Spanish liking for paella would be just one factor, (joking aside, Spain has powerful fishing lobbies who would resent the loss of access to the Scottish fishing grounds). More significantly, Scotland has an important geopolitical position on the edge of the Atlantic, so it’s unlikely that it would be kicked out of the EU. Scotland also has oil. (Yes the value has dropped, but it will climb again. Scotland has a good economy (3rd wealthiest part of the UK after London and the south-east), and oil was only ever going to be a bonus on top of that.) Is the EU really going to kick out a country which has oil, large fishing grounds, abundant water (too much!), and a position on that Atlantic seaboard?

    Would London grant another referendum? Every time the UK Conservative politicians have been asked that in recent days, they have dodged the question. They say things like “I do not believe there is appetite for another referendum”. The new London government might be very hardline on this issue, but there is a UN Right to Self-Determination, and London knows it has to tread very carefully, so I believe that they can’t really block another referendum.

  6. Regarding your comment about Spain and Catalonia, I offer up the example of EU member Slovenia.

    ….the Constitution of the old Socialist Republic of Slovenia was “based on the right of every nation to self-determination, which also includes the right to secession”. Catalonia’s Estatut offers a different situation, in legal terms: “The self-government of Catalonia is based on the Constitution, and also on the historical rights of the Catalan people…”.

    Spain did not block Slovenian accession to the EU, because the extant Slovenian constitution permitted secession. Spain has already acknowledged that it would abide by Scotland’s constitutional right to independence. The whole justification for blocking Catalan independence is that it is specifically anti-constitutional.

    The only reason Spain can legitimately ignore the UN right to self-determination is because Catalan independence would contravene the constitution. If it blocked independent Scotland’s EU accession, Spain would then undermine its own argument that self-determination can only happen if it is constitutionally permitted.

    “Scottish independence, when it comes about, will be entirely constitutional within what passes for a UK constitution. It would be recognised by the Westminster government and the independence process would be carried out in accordance with the British constitution, just like it was in 2014. For Spain to veto the accession of an independent Scotland to the EU just to spite the Catalans would give the Catalans the proof they require that Madrid’s refusal to grant a Catalan referendum is in fact because Spain doesn’t recognise the right to self-determination after all. And by blocking Scotland, Madrid will have destroyed its own legal case against Catalan independence and given the Catalans the excuse they require to internationalise their dispute with Madrid. So for that reason alone, Madrid will recognise Scottish independence and will not block Scottish accession to the EU.”

  7. About Douglas-Scott — it rather seems she’s alone in this interpretation and EU officials are all saying the opposite.

    You may be right that once Scotland goes independent, Spain will change its mind. There are certainly arguments for Spain letting Scotland in, but also consider the possibility that Madrid regards its self-interests differently than you do. To them, the threat of Catalan secession — which might revive Basque separatism as well — could very well override any economic arguments.

    It’s hard to tell and it’s not like everybody in Madrid agrees. But I think we can agree that Spain could be a problem to the EU aspirations of an independent Scotland.

  8. I agree, Spain will not be happy at all.
    Regarding Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, she may be alone in this specific interpretation for now, but it is very early days in uncharted waters. EU officials have been very positive towards Scotland. They are perhaps less diplomatically bound than they were in 2014. Back then they had to follow London’s line, but now that London is brexiting, it could be argued that the diplomatic protocols are weaker.
    Some examples of EU friendliness…..

    An unnamed EU official told one of Belgium’s Francophone newspapers:

    “Si les Ecossais se dépêchent, deviennent indépendants avant que le processus de séparation entre Londres et l’Union ne s’achève et déclarent être liés par l’acquis communautaire, ils pourraient rester dans l’UE sans difficultés en reprenant le statut du Royaume-Uni.”

    (translation) If the Scots hurry, become independent before the separation process between London and the Union ends and declare their continued attachment to the community, they could stay in the EU without difficulty by taking the status of the UK.

    It’s not just the European Parliament. A “senior Eurozone government official” was quoted by Buzzfeed News last week as saying “an independent Scotland would probably be granted a fast track to EU membership”. In fact, individual governments all around the EU have voiced their support for Scotland remaining in the community.


    Reuters reported on 24 June that:

    “The parliamentary floor leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, Thomas Oppermann, said on Friday he would welcome Scotland as a member of the European Union if it were to become independent.

    ‘The Scots have made clear that their place is in Europe and if Scotland gains its independence in the end and again joins the European Union, then that would not balance out the loss for Great Britain but I would warmly welcome the Scots in Europe’, Oppermann told reporters in Berlin.”

    Scotland welcome to join EU, Merkel ally says
    An independent Scotland would be welcome to join the European Union, a senior German lawmaker and ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel has said after Britain’s vote to leave the bloc.

    Gunther Krichbaum, a member of Angela Merkel’s conservatives and chairman of the European affairs committee in parliament, said an independent Scotland would be welcome to join the European Union.

    ‘The EU will still consist of 28 member states, as I expect a new independence referendum in Scotland, which will then be successful,’ said ‘We should respond quickly to an application for admission from the EU-friendly country’, he told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.”

    And there’s more……


  9. I definitively agree there’s more sympathy for Scotland now that England and Wales have voted to leave the EU. And when there’s there’s the will, Europe typically finds a way.

  10. Yes. Scotland might still stay in the UK though. In 2014 the UK media distorted many stories. (i.e. by splashing headline inaccurate scare stories all over their front pages, then a few days later admitting they were inaccurate in tiny columns tucked away on page 9). Fewer people will fall for it this time, but the media is still the UK’s most powerful weapon.

  11. Interesting update on the Spanish veto situation.
    “The Spanish Government will veto the terms of any Brexit negotiation between the UK and the EU that sought to include Gibraltar, Spain’s acting Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said yesterday.”

    Comments by Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo suggest that far from Spain vetoing an independent Scotland, Spain will actually be applying its veto to the United Kingdom’s Brexit terms if it includes Gibraltar.
    Don’t hold your breath for the UK press to highlight this interesting and ironic information….
    (A reminder; Spain has never said it will veto an independent Scotland’s EU membership)

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