Building a New Scotland: an independent Scotland in the EU

This paper sets out the Scottish Government’s vision for an independent Scotland in the EU.


This publication, part of the ‘Building a New Scotland’ series, sets out the Scottish Government’s vision for an independent Scotland as part of the European Union (EU). This government believes that membership of the EU is fundamental to Scotland’s economic, social and political future and that we should seek to re-join the EU as soon as possible after independence.

The EU provides a framework for peace, cooperation and prosperity. It enables states of different sizes to collaborate as equals in relationships governed by values, cooperation and law rather than sheer might. In contrast to the limitations faced by Scotland, as a ‘devolved nation’ operating within the UK, each member of the EU has a formal role in shaping the direction and making decisions.

European cooperation and integration – with member states working on shared ambitions and choosing to find solutions and resolve differences through negotiations and on the basis of the rule of law – have benefitted the people of Europe immensely. This includes economic development, raising environmental standards, protecting rights and providing safety through solidarity.

The EU (and its predecessor arrangements) have provided stability and prosperity for its member states for over 70 years. Its founding ethos of peace and solidarity remains as relevant now as it was when the then European Coal and Steel Community was created in 1951. Over the years, the EU has become a major player on the international scene, including where key decisions are taken such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP) and the World Trade Organization. Representing around 450 million people,[1] with a competitive single market almost seven times the size of the UK,[2] it is a leader in global trade,[3] shapes global standards[4] and champions human rights on the world stage.[5] See Box 1 below for a history of the EU.

Box 1: History of the EU

The EU has consolidated democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Its roots date back to the end of World War II when European politicians from six countries drew up plans to promote peace and economic prosperity. By jointly managing their coal and steel industries, no single country could make weapons of war. Initially called the European Coal and Steel Community, it was based on a principle of joint decision-making still applicable today.

Building on its success, the European Economic Community and European Atomic Energy Community were created. Together these three organisations – which became the predecessor to today’s EU – gradually removed barriers to trade, allowed people to move freely, and pooled nuclear industries. New members, including the UK, started joining in 1973. Enlargement has been continuous and varied since then, providing political stability to an ever larger area.

Membership of the EU has helped transform former dictatorships, and many of the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, into stable democracies and more affluent countries. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked another major change, with the reunification of Germany and 16 million new EU citizens.

Today the EU's borders stretch from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The enlargement door remains open to any European country able to fulfil the EU's political and economic criteria for membership. Having received the Nobel Peace prize for its contribution to promoting peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights it is no wonder that enthusiasm to join the EU remains high.

Whilst many of the benefits of EU membership were planned and purposefully designed, others have evolved over the course of its history and in response to external challenges. The EU’s solidarity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the coordinated response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine are both strong examples of the added value EU membership brings.

The core values of the EU,[6] which are based on human dignity, equality, rule of law, freedom, democracy and human rights (see Box 2 below), resonate in Scotland.[7] As covered in ‘Building a New Scotland: Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland’,[8] having a written constitution which reflects fundamental values would demonstrate that Scotland is fully committed to the values shared by other European nations.[9]

The EU’s objectives, secured by common policies, are deliberated and delivered by independent states co-operating for the common good within a democratic framework of institutions and governance. Pooling elements of sovereignty within EU structures, on an equal footing with partners with common ambitions and shared values, would allow an independent Scotland to protect and promote its national interests.

Box 2: The values of the EU

  • Human dignity. Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected, protected and constitutes the real basis of fundamental rights.
  • Freedom. Freedom of movement gives citizens the right to move and reside freely within the Union. Individual freedoms such as respect for private life, freedom of thought, religion, assembly, expression and information are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
  • Democracy. The functioning of the EU is founded on representative democracy. A European citizen automatically enjoys political rights. Every adult EU citizen has the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in elections to the European Parliament. EU citizens have the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in their country of residence, or in their country of origin.
  • Equality. Equality is about equal rights for all citizens before the law. The principle of equality between women and men underpins all European policies and is the basis for European integration. It applies in all areas. The principle of equal pay for equal work became part of the Treaty of Rome in 1957.
  • Rule of law. The EU is based on the rule of law. Everything the EU does is founded on treaties, voluntarily and democratically agreed by its EU countries. Law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary. The EU countries gave final jurisdiction to the Court of Justice of the European Union on points of EU law – its judgments have to be respected by all.
  • Human rights. Human rights are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. These cover the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation, the right to the protection of your personal data, and the right to get access to justice.

Scotland has much to contribute as a responsible and reliable future EU member state by being fully committed both to the rule of international law and to enhancing people’s rights. As a destination of choice for students and academics from all over the world, our universities and research centres have much to offer and much to gain. With a strong technology sector[10] and

a wealth of assets in areas from renewable energy[11] to life sciences[12] we are well positioned to contribute to the innovation and growth – and what is described as the EU’s “twin transitions” of moving to both a green and digital economy – which are critical to the EU’s long-term prosperity and sustainable growth.[13]

The context – Scotland’s unique position

Scotland is a country within the multinational state of the United Kingdom. Following centuries as an independent nation, in 1707 the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of political union with England. Notwithstanding that political union, Scotland has retained distinctive Scottish national institutions and systems including legal and education systems and the church.

Before and after 1707 Scotland has enjoyed strong and enduring connections with our fellow Europeans. In the Middle Ages Scotland traded across Europe. Scottish merchants and intellectuals travelled to the booming Dutch universities; to the trading communities in Germany, Flanders, Lithuania and Poland; to the Scots colleges in Rome, Paris, Valladolid and Madrid; and to the military encampments of the Thirty Years’ War. Scotland in turn received a continual flow of Europeans who brought ideas as much as trade to Scotland.

During the Enlightenment period in the 18th and 19th centuries Scottish scholars made a major contribution to the development of European, and indeed world, thought.[14] In the 20th century, Scotland played a distinctive part in efforts to rebuild Europe after the Second World War: the Edinburgh International Festival, now one of the largest arts festivals in the world and a model for international cooperation through culture and the arts, was founded in 1947 with an Austrian director and co-founder, rooted in the idea that culture could be a positive force for reconstructing a shattered continent. As part of the UK Scotland joined the European Communities on 1 January 1973.

In the second half of the last century a long campaign for self-government, by a wide range of Scottish civic society, led to the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.[15] Under the devolved settlement in Scotland, the parliament has responsibility for a wide range of domestic policy areas, including health, education, many aspects of environmental policy, justice and elements of taxation and social security.

The UK Parliament retains control of macroeconomic policy, foreign policy and defence, immigration and asylum, most social security and taxation powers.

In 2021 the Welsh Government (which does not support Welsh independence) published a paper setting out its views on the future governance of the UK, which included this passage:

If […] the UK is conceived of as a voluntary association of nations, it must be open to any of its parts democratically to choose to withdraw from the Union. If this were not so, a nation could conceivably be bound into the UK against its will, a situation both undemocratic and inconsistent with the idea of a Union based on shared values and interests.[16]

The Scottish Government agrees with this view. Moreover in 2014, all political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament, whether or not they supported independence, signed up to the Smith Commission report on future constitutional arrangements that said: “nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”[17]

Irrespective of views on independence, it has long been recognised, not least by the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, that Scotland is a country – not a region of a unitary state.[18] Scotland is therefore in a unique situation as a country in a voluntary union of nations which has been removed from the EU and its single market against the wishes of the majority of people in Scotland.

Brexit has prompted renewed debate over whether it is better for Scotland’s future to be back inside the EU as a member state in our own right or whether it is better to maintain the current arrangements which enabled Scotland to be taken out of the EU.

The choice before us

In 2016, people in Scotland voted decisively to remain in the EU and polling undertaken since the 2016 referendum has consistently found large majorities in favour of EU membership.[19] There is clear evidence on the economic benefits to Scotland of membership of the European single market and customs union.[20] Our EU membership was central not only to our economic growth, but to improving the lives of our citizens, increasing opportunities for trade, training and collaborative research for example, and establishing the highest shared standards of environmental protection.[21] It became firmly woven into the fabric of our society and our legal frameworks, and strengthened the longstanding historical connections between Scotland and our fellow Europeans, shaping our cohesive and multi-cultural society and contributing to the sustainability of our rural communities.[22]

Two years before that vote, people in Scotland voted in a referendum on whether or not to become independent. During that referendum campaign the issue of EU membership was to the fore, with the Westminster government, which opposed independence, stating:

Scotland benefits from the UK’s strong voice in Europe. The UK exerts its influence in Europe on behalf of Scotland on issues that matter to people and businesses in Scotland, such as budget contributions, fisheries and agricultural subsidies.[23]

That claimed voice has now gone. The UK is now absent from all the structures for co-operation and decision-making within the EU.[24] The UK’s and Scotland’s ability to influence EU decisions and policy making has to all intents and purposes gone.

Under the Westminster system of government, Scotland’s ability to chart its own path is highly constrained by the decisions of the Westminster government, which undermine Scotland’s ability to maintain high standards in environmental regulation[25] or workers’[26] and consumer rights.[27] Regional development funding has fallen and is shorter-term as a result of Brexit and the Scottish Government’s influence over how replacement funds are spent has ceased.[28] As outlined in the Scottish Government’s publication ‘The Brexit vote, 5 years on’[29] and in the section on Scotland’s current situation outside the EU below, young Scots no longer benefit from the Erasmus+ exchange programme and it is harder for Scots to work, trade, and provide services in EU countries. Our ability to cooperate with European police and judicial authorities to combat crime has also been weakened, for example by now being outside the European Arrest Warrant and Schengen Information System networks.[30]

As an independent state and EU member, Scotland would regain the political, economic, social and security benefits membership affords. Not only would this guarantee that EU citizens could continue to play a vital role in Scotland’s society and workforce, including in areas such as health and social care, but as a member state in its own right, an independent Scotland in the EU would be able to develop even stronger, mutually beneficial partnerships in Europe.

This paper therefore presents the choice now facing the people of Scotland: either for Scotland’s interests to be at risk of being marginalised as the UK continues to distance itself from the EU,[31] or to resume statehood, regaining the benefits of EU membership and, as an independent country, working together with EU member states, as well as the UK, on our big challenges and strengths.

The first section of the paper demonstrates that the two unions – the United Kingdom and the European Union – are fundamentally different. Scotland’s current position, as a ‘devolved nation’ of the United Kingdom subject to the decisions of the Westminster government and Parliament, contrasts significantly with how an independent Scotland in the EU would be able to operate. EU processes ensure that the voices of member states are heard, and these rights are enshrined in the EU Treaties. This section also shows how choosing independence and sharing sovereignty as a member of the EU would strengthen Scotland’s voice and ability to protect and promote our interests.

The next section considers Scotland’s current situation outside the EU. As a nation within a non- EU state, the scope of the relationships Scotland can have with the EU are inevitably constrained. Scotland’s influence on global issues directly affecting our economy and society is significantly diminished. And the opportunities for our citizens to live, travel, study, visit and do business in the EU are narrower, with poorer prospects for us all.[32]

The paper goes on to present a section on the benefits that would accrue from becoming an independent state and member of the EU. EU membership involves nations voluntarily co- operating as equal partners with shared values and a common purpose to influence global issues and agree policies that shape their common future for the benefit of their citizens.

The final section highlights just some of the areas where an independent Scotland would contribute to the EU, and the responsibilities we would share with other member states. Scotland has much to offer, and EU membership is the best way for us to collaborate on shared challenges and opportunities.



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