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.

Shared sovereignty is enhanced sovereignty

Key points

The two unions – the United Kingdom and the European Union – are fundamentally different.

Westminster can unilaterally alter the powers of the devolved institutions, without the agreement of the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. It can legally ignore the democratically expressed wishes of people in Scotland. And it can reverse and even end devolution.

In contrast, EU member states are fully involved in policy development and decision making, and this is protected by the EU Treaties.

Within the EU, 12 of the 27 member states have populations similar to, or less than, Scotland’s. They are all successful, independent nations.

By securing independence from the UK, Scotland would be able to join the EU as a sovereign state.

As a member of the EU, an independent Scotland would be represented at every level of EU decision making, able to influence decisions and promote Scotland’s interests.

EU member states pool sovereignty only where there is a clear interest to do so, and in a way that embeds democratic processes.

The cross-border nature of global challenges and the inter-connectedness of supply chains mean that pooling of sovereignty is increasingly important for all states.

Choosing independence and voluntarily sharing sovereignty as a member of the EU would strengthen Scotland’s voice and ability to protect and promote our interests.

‘Taking back control’ became a central slogan for those who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU. Yet the notion of ‘absolute’ British sovereignty in today’s interdependent world is considered to be unachievable and undesirable.[33] The cross-border nature of global challenges such as climate change and international security, and the inter-connectedness of 21st century global supply chains, makes pooling of national sovereignty increasingly important for all states.

As the history of European integration has shown, sharing sovereignty voluntarily between EU partners enhances sovereignty and improves outcomes for people. In the words of Charles Michel, President of the European Council:

In these challenging times, it is only by working together, by building this European spirit of security, that we will address the complex geopolitical and security challenges and keep our democratic societies secure and our citizens safe.[34]

By working as partners, EU countries can address common challenges much more effectively. This includes delivering national objectives better than any country could do on its own. For example, in recent decades the EU has placed increasing significance on protecting our environment and natural world. Pollution in our air, water and soils have also fallen significantly.[35] The EU has driven up standards in environmental protection covering areas as diverse as air and water quality to waste and promoting the circular economy. It was only through sharing sovereignty with other EU member states that it was possible to design an ambitious EU climate change and wider environment strategy in which all 27 EU member states have committed to Europe becoming the first climate neutral continent in the world.[36] EU member states are also working together in a range of other key areas, such as increasing the EU’s global market share of microchips and reducing dependence on third country suppliers to ensure continuity of global supply in times of crisis. This will boost innovation, production and skills across the EU.

EU member states pool sovereignty only where there is a clear interest in doing so at a European level, and only when they have taken the sovereign decision to do so. Member states continue to control key aspects of their own affairs. Many issues are driven by member states’ national governments, including health, education and culture. Where the EU does take action on such issues it does so in a way which embeds democratic processes and is based on the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.[37] This ensures that all member states can protect their vital national interests, and that intervention at the EU level is only when action cannot be sufficiently achieved by member states.

EU governments come to agreement through transparent and democratic processes. Unanimity is required on certain issues, including EU membership, taxation, social security, operational police co-operation between member states and most aspects of common foreign and security policy. Any changes to the EU Treaties also require the democratic and unanimous agreement of all EU member states and the agreement of the European Parliament. On these matters all nations therefore have an equal ability to ensure and promote their interests.

The majority of decisions in the Council of the European Union (see Annex 1) are taken by qualified majority voting. This requires 55% of member states, accounting for at least 65% of the EU population, to vote in favour. Decisions taken are binding on, and enforceable in or against, all member states. An individual member state cannot unilaterally revoke or fail to deliver on its obligations to others’ and its own citizens.

Most internal EU policies, known as common policies as they affect all EU member states, also require the agreement of the European Parliament on the basis of a simple majority of its members. No country can have fewer than six or more than 96 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).[38] Because seats are allocated by the principle of ‘degressive proportionality’ (i.e. smaller countries are allocated more MEPs than they would be allocated in proportion to their population size) smaller member states have more representation for each of their citizens compared to larger member states.[39] This strengthens the voice of smaller member states, and their citizens, in the European Parliament.

Whereas the EU system offers specific protections to member states, the Westminster system offers no such protection. Under the UK’s constitutional system, the Westminster government and parliament can legally ignore, and even override, the democratically expressed wishes of people in Scotland and alter the powers of the devolved institutions unilaterally, without their agreement.

The devolved institutions are protected only by conventions – constitutional rules which are not legally enforceable and which the Westminster government and parliament can, and increasingly do, choose to override.[40] The Westminster government can – again perfectly legally – change its own commitments to the devolved governments and legislatures as it pleases and with little or no notice.[41]

Despite the fact that a large majority of people in Scotland voted in support of the creation of a Scottish Parliament,[42] the Westminster government has made changes that constrain the devolution settlement against the express wishes of Scotland’s Parliament, in breach of the UK’s constitutional conventions. For example, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 places new constraints on the powers of the Scottish Parliament, both by altering the devolution settlement without consent, and by undermining the legal effect of devolved policy in many areas.

So while the Scottish Parliament could legislate to regulate the sale of certain items in Scotland, for example due to health or environmental concerns, the mutual recognition requirements in the Act enable goods which originate elsewhere in the UK (or were imported into another part of the UK) to still be sold in Scotland regardless of the decisions of the Parliament and the wishes of the people of Scotland.[43] This has meant the Scottish Deposit Return Scheme has been delayed and its original scope remains under threat.[44]

The United Kingdom Internal Market Act therefore weakens the ability of the Scottish Parliament and Government to implement policy in areas for which they are democratically responsible. This risks undermining our ability to maintain high environmental standards, food standards and animal welfare in Scotland, for example. The Scottish Parliament voted decisively against the Internal Market Act but this was ignored by the Westminster government and parliament, which passed the legislation without the consent of devolved governments and parliaments.

The UK Government also has other powers to block devolved action and for the first time recently showed its willingness to use them. Under section 35 of the Scotland Act, a UK secretary of state can stop a bill getting Royal Assent if they have “reasonable grounds” to believe the law in question would have an adverse effect on legislation reserved to Westminster – providing Westminster with a veto over the democratically elected Scottish Parliament’s powers in certain circumstances.[45]

Influence of states of Scotland’s size in the EU

Twelve of the EU’s 27 member states have a population similar to, or less than, Scotland’s (see Table 1 below). They are all successful, independent nations. Using their partnerships they build coalitions with member states, both small and large, to advance their objectives. They all set their own course but work with partners to tackle societal challenges and deliver health, prosperity, security and opportunity for their citizens.

As an independent state and member of the EU, Scotland would have its own voice within the EU and would participate in EU decision making. Scotland’s population is around the same as those of Finland or Slovakia, and slightly above Ireland’s. It would therefore have similar qualified majority voting weight to these member states.

The most influential positions in the EU are often held by citizens from the EU’s smaller countries. For example, Charles Michel is the second Belgian (from a country just twice Scotland’s size) to hold the position of President of the European Council since it was created by the Lisbon Treaty over 10 years ago.

Several studies have demonstrated that small member states generally have significant influence within the EU. This is particularly the case on issues where member states have specific expertise or national interests[46] and when working cooperatively and building alliances within the EU.[47] These studies demonstrate that regardless of population size, EU member states can provide leadership and exert real influence.

The amount of influence smaller EU states enjoy, both formally and informally, is in stark contrast to Scotland’s current position as part of the UK outside the EU.[48]

Table 1: 2021 Population estimates for Scotland and the smallest EU member states, and number of MEPs in the smallest EU member states
Country Population[49] Number of MEPs[50]
Malta 542,000 6
Luxembourg 661,000 6
Cyprus 921,000 6
Estonia 1,366,000 7
Latvia 1,883,000 8
Slovenia 2,117,000 8
Lithuania 2,857,000 11
Croatia 3,851,000 12
Ireland 5,194,000 13
Slovakia 5,429,000 14
Scotland (mid-2021) 5,480,000
Finland 5,564,000 14
Denmark 5,933,000 14

‘Seats’ at the EU table

The EU institutions (see Annex 1) help member states work together to achieve agreed goals. Checks and balances are built into the system to prevent any single body from imposing its preferences unilaterally. Member states also play key roles: governments attend the European Council and the Council of the European Union, ministries, departments and agencies implement and enforce EU policies, as well as contributing to their development, while national parliaments and courts contribute to accountability and scrutiny.

An independent Scotland in the EU would have representatives in the European Parliament. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected to represent member states’ citizens politically and participate in committees that are relevant to the nation’s interests. As an independent member state, Scotland’s number of MEPs would be subject to negotiation as part of its accession treaty and could expect at least double the six MEPs Scotland had as part of UK from 2009-2020 (Denmark, Slovakia and Finland, all with populations similar to Scotland’s, each have 14 MEPs, see Table 1). The Parliament, directly elected by EU voters, has a key role alongside the Council (made up of the member states) over the EU’s budget and the majority of EU legislation.

The work of MEPs affects EU citizens in many aspects of day-to-day life. Some of the most impactful work of the European Parliament can be felt through its efforts to expand and develop the European single market (which creates the conditions for goods and services to flow easily, cheaply and safely across Europe), and to protect consumer safety, human and animal health and the environment.

The European Parliament also directly shapes and influences EU funding programmes. These would provide considerable opportunities and benefits to Scottish citizens, for example through research and innovation projects such as Horizon Europe, student exchanges (Erasmus+), farmer and rural community support through the Common Agricultural Policy, cross-border judicial cooperation to tackle crime and terrorism, funding and support for marine cooperation and investments in health and wellbeing projects across Scotland.

Once Scotland became a member of the EU, Scottish ministers would attend Council meetings, including the European Council, which brings together the Heads of State and Government of the member states. Scotland would have a judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union, two at the General Court, the opportunity to nominate an Advocate General and to have a member at the Court of Auditors.

Scottish interests would be represented at every level of decision making. Membership of the EU would come with a seat for Scotland in every committee and every Council working group. There would be a seat for the Scottish Permanent Representative to the EU and their deputy in “Coreper”[51] meetings, which prepare the work of the Council of the European Union. Coreper occupies a pivotal position in the EU’s decision-making system. It is both a forum for dialogue and a means of representing and defending member state interests.

Every EU member state, regardless of size, has the opportunity to hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union by rotation. Cyprus, Ireland and Lithuania – all countries smaller than Scotland – held the Presidency in immediate succession and had a role in framing the EU agenda and, within its overall work programme, to prioritise issues. Denmark pushed for legislation to promote environmental protection – convincing partners of the importance of this through its own track record in environmental policy.[52] Finland prioritised the wellbeing economy and gender equality as part of its 2019 Presidency programme.[53] The current Spanish Presidency’s priorities include supporting the green and digital transitions as part of the focus on energy security and equality and inclusivity[54] – both issues of importance to Scotland too.

As a member of the EU, an independent Scotland would do the same. Working with member states in areas of common interest, Scotland would help set the agenda and contribute to how the EU tackles political, social, economic and democratic challenges and how it responds to opportunities and threats in Europe and globally.

EU membership would also give Scotland a seat on the board of the European Investment Bank, and access to European-backed grants, loans and guarantees for infrastructure, green technology and other investments.[55] Scottish citizens would be recruited to the Commission and other EU institutions, including as diplomats deployed around the world in the European External Action Service.

All EU member states provide a Commissioner to the College of Commissioners. Together Commissioners help to shape the EU’s overall strategy and initiate legislation for the EU. Each Commissioner carries the same weight within the decision-making process and they are equally responsible for the decisions made.

Croatia, smaller than Scotland and the EU’s newest member state, previously had the Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development. Finland, with a similar population to Scotland has the current Commissioner for International Partnerships. Lithuania has the Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. It is recognised that they of course act in the general interest of the EU upon taking office.

Commissioners from Slovakia and Latvia are currently Executive Vice-Presidents of the European Commission.[56] Malta, the smallest EU member state with a population similar to that of Edinburgh, has the Commissioner for Equality – while also providing (since early 2022) the European Parliament’s first female President.

As a member of the EU, Scotland would also have representatives in the Committee of the Regions (CoR), providing additional opportunities for cooperation and influence for local government bodies, and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an EU advisory body which comprises representatives from workers’ and employers’ organisations and other interest groups.[57]

It can be seen from this section that EU membership provides states of Scotland’s size the opportunity to contribute to EU and global issues, especially in areas in which Scotland has significant interests and expertise.

What does this mean for Scotland?

Some may ask why Scotland should leave one union only to join another. There are major differences between being a member state of the EU as a sovereign state and being a nation within the UK.[58] As explained above, with a devolved government in the UK the views of Scotland’s people, as expressed through democratic elections to both Westminster and Holyrood, can have little or no influence on decisions taken by Westminster in the many crucial areas where it retains power over Scotland, and where power has been devolved their views can be ignored or over-ridden. In addition, there are no formal and legal protections which ensure Scotland’s voice is heard. The recent Brexit experience has underlined this.[59]

As a result, Scotland:

  • has a government in Westminster which people in Scotland did not vote for
  • is bound by the decisions the Westminster government and parliament makes on reserved issues, often with little or no meaningful input to these decisions irrespective of their impact in Scotland, for example by limiting social security support for those in financial need
  • is subject to decisions at Westminster that are not supported by people in Scotland, such as the decision to remove Scotland from the EU
  • can have, and is having, the powers of its devolved institutions altered unilaterally by Westminster, without the agreement of the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament or the people of Scotland, as seen in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020
  • has no formal means to influence reserved matters, such as foreign policy, to ensure UK policy reflects views from across the UK, not just those in the Westminster government
  • usually has very limited influence, through elected Members of Parliament (MPs), in the UK’s agreements with any country, intergovernmental organisation or the EU. As a result the recent UK-New Zealand and UK-Australia Free Trade Agreements expose the Scottish agriculture market to highly export orientated food producers, which could put many Scottish farms out of business

In marked contrast, EU member states are fully involved in policy development and decision making and this is protected by the EU Treaties. As an EU member state, an independent Scotland would:

  • be represented in the EU by governments formed by a party or parties that win elections in Scotland
  • have our head of Government sit alongside the other EU member states’ heads of State and Government with the formal opportunity to shape the European political agenda
  • have a formal role in decision making, with more representation for each of our citizens compared to larger member states in the European Parliament
  • be formally represented in the EU institutions, including the Council of the European Union
  • play a part in defining the development of EU policy
  • have a representative take up one of the European Commissioner seats, bringing their knowledge of Scotland to the heart of the EU’s political decision making
  • have a judge at the Court of Justice of the European Union, two at the General Court, and a member at the Court of Auditors
  • have a minister on the board of the European Investment Bank
  • have a seat in every EU Committee and every European Council working group
  • have the opportunity to take a turn holding the Presidency of the Council of the EU

The disparity in approach between the UK and the EU is stark. The EU showed its commitment to preserving EU unity and collective solidarity in the way it approached the UK’s exit negotiations.[60] By contrast, the Westminster government disregarded the views of the majority of people in Scotland throughout the process[61] and imposed its preferred outcome on Scotland, despite it being detrimental to Scotland’s interests.

With independence and EU membership Scotland would pool some aspects of our sovereignty within the EU. Other European countries recognise that this is a more effective way to promote their national interests because it provides far greater influence, for example over the shape of regulation in the world’s largest market, as well as on the EU’s position in international affairs – issues that matter more and more in an increasingly unstable world.

By design, the EU’s approach is not always swift. The EU institutional architecture is intended to be both effective – ensuring that the rules agreed to by member states are respected – and inclusive of the interests of all its constituent parts. It is precisely because the EU’s approach is one of building consensus between member states and in the European Parliament that decisions can take time. But when member states and the European Parliament decide to move rapidly to respond collectively to emergencies, such as putting successive packages of sanctions in place against Russia following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, they do so.

This section has shown that the two unions – the UK and the EU – are fundamentally different in how they operate. Sovereignty should mean having a seat at the table, a voice in the debate and a vote on the outcome. As a ‘devolved nation’ Scotland does not have this. In comparison to the limited opportunity to represent and protect Scotland’s interests as part of the UK, Scotland would be better off by gaining, sharing and enhancing our sovereignty through independence and EU membership.



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