Despite setbacks, the Scottish independence question is merely delayed but far from resolved. Now that the United Kingdom has formally left the European Union, the next challenge is to define the UK’s future relationships with key allies. While early negotiations with Brussels begin to falter, a second front has opened up in the north as Scotland pursues independence.
Another independence referendum has been in the works since the Brexit vote. Although the United Kingdom as a whole voted in June 2016 to leave the EU, Scotland rejected leaving the EU with 62 percent in favor of remaining and 38 percent voting to leave. Scotland weathered the various delays and debates of the Brexit process, but the sentiment shared by many Scots was that they were being dragged out of the union by their neighbors to the south. Cries for another referendum on Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom grew in the lead-up to Brexit, with public support for independence tipping past the 50 percent threshold for the first time. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced at the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) annual conference last October another independence referendum — dubbed “indyref2” on social media — will be held in the second half of 2020. Hopes were high that 2020 would be the year of independence.
The next stage in the process was for the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood to formally request power through a section 30 order from the UK Parliament in Westminster to hold a referendum. Boris Johnson’s government rejected this request in January, disrupting Sturgeon’s timeline of holding the second referendum in late 2020. Johnson cited a number of reasons for denying the Scottish request for another referendum, including the promise that an independence vote should be a “once in a generation” decision. Westminster and Holyrood have to be in agreement about the referendum for the results of the referendum to be legal and internationally legitimate. Without buy-in from Westminster, Scotland’s referendum would be a repeat of Catalonia’s independence referendum in 2017, and if the Scots voted to leave the UK, accession to the EU would be a nonstarter.
More time to plan its departure
Although Johnson’s rejection of the section 30 order came as an initial defeat, this grants the SNP more time to build their case for independence. If the referendum does not take place in the second half of 2020 as planned, the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021 will essentially become a referendum on independence. Sturgeon and the SNP can use the next year to build a strong case for independence and attempt to answer the many outstanding questions from the last independence referendum. A myriad of issues plagued the debates in the 2014 Scottish referendum from uncertainty over the economic potential of an independent Scotland, whether Scotland would be accepted into the European Union, should a new currency be created, and many more.
The economy remains the number one concern of Scots when pursuing independence, with proponents arguing greater control over taxation, the ability to rejoin the EU, and natural resources from the North Sea would yield a prosperous Scotland. Opponents express concern over Scotland’s budget deficit, dependence on the common currency of the UK, and an overreliance on global oil prices to sustain the economy. Sturgeon pledged a series of papers would be revealed in the coming months that would outline the case for independence and attempt to allay concerns about the future of an independent Scotland.
A growing number of voices in continental Europe have expressed sympathy for Scotland’s plight, and approval to join the EU seems more likely today than in 2014.
All 27 EU members would have to approve for Scotland to join the union. Many anticipate opposition to an independent Scotland’s membership to the EU would come from member countries that currently face similar independence movements, such as Spain, Italy, or France. However, Brexit has softened the stance of many politicians on the EU side. Spain’s Foreign Minister even went as far as to say Spain would not block Scottish membership to the EU as an independent country. On the last day of the UK’s membership to the EU, Nicola Sturgeon asked her EU colleagues to “leave a light on for Scotland,” signaling her intention for Scotland to rejoin the bloc in the future.
As Brexit continues to demonstrate, any decoupling is complicated and messy. The UK’s departure from the EU after 40 years isn’t any less complicated than the end of the 400-year union of the island of Great Britain. One thing is for certain, the 2014 referendum did not provide definitive answers to the question of Scottish independence, and this issue will continue to recur periodically until another referendum occurs.
Jason C. Moyer is the Director of The Next Generation of Transatlantic Leaders initiative at the Transatlantic Leadership Network.