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What If Scotland Chooses Independence?

  • Rikard Jozwiak

First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond gives a speech to launch the consultation for an independence referendum in Edinburgh on January 25.

First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond gives a speech to launch the consultation for an independence referendum in Edinburgh on January 25.

BRUSSELS -- The date's not yet set, but Scots are on the verge of being asked if they want independence from the United Kingdom.

For a long time it seemed that most Scots would favor staying in the union, but polls in recent weeks have indicated that opinion is equally split between the two camps.

Much will depend on how the referendum, expected by 2014, will be put.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is due in Edinburgh on February 16 for talks with the head of Scotland's devolved government, Alex Salmond, in an effort to agree the referendum's terms.

The British government wants a straight in-or-out question whereas Scotland's devolved government, dominated by the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), has been toying with the idea of asking two questions: one about independence and one about whether Scotland should acquire more powers inside the United Kingdom -- a move short of independence known as "devolution max."

The SNP has also pushed for 16- and 17-year-olds to be allowed to vote -- the legal voting age is currently 18. Youngsters tend to be more pro-independence.

How would a Scottish separation from the United Kingdom look?

It's likely to be a velvet divorce. The Scots would keep Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state and retain the British pound as their currency.

But there are tricky issues, such as the fate of the British Army's nuclear submarines, which currently are parked in Scotland's deep lochs.

"We don't want to have nuclear submarines on Scottish soil," says Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister of Scotland, "We would not have them if Scotland was to be independent. Many people in Scotland see the ability not to have weapons of mass destruction on our soil and territorial waters to be one of the great advantages and reasons to vote for independence."

Even so, finding an alternative location for the submarines could take some time, raising the scenario that London's nuclear weapons could end up stored in a foreign country.

Would an independent Scotland automatically be part of the European Union?

No one knows for sure, since there is no historical precedent and there is nothing in the EU treaties about what to do if a part of a country that already is a member state becomes independent.

Some argue that Scotland is a successor state to the United Kingdom and that the rest of the U.K. also would have to reapply to join the EU if Scotland were forced to do so.

Alyn Smith, a European member of parliament (MEP) for the SNP, says that Scotland automatically will become an EU member after settling a few issues with Brussels such as the number of Scottish MEPs , the portfolio of the Scottish EU commissioner, and the voting power of the new country.

"We will change our relationship in that we move from the second carriage of the train to the first-class carriage of the train. But that's it," he says.

But others are of the opinion that Scotland might have to go through some sort of accession talks similar to those of other EU candidate countries -- though it's unclear if Scotland would have to leave the EU before applying to join again.

Would an independent Scotland have to adopt the euro?

If Scotland is a successor state to the United Kingdom, it would inherit the United Kingdom's opt-out to the single currency. At the same time, all new member states must one day join the euro.

How to square those opposing arguments is unclear. But the most likely precedent here is Sweden, which has pledged to join the euro in the future but rejected membership through a referendum in 2003 and has stayed out ever since.

Would other EU member states accept Scotland into the club?

Fabian Zuleeg, of the Brussels-based the European Policy Center think tank, says Scottish independence would raise fears in countries such as Spain where certain separatist-minded regions might seek to copy Scotland.

"There will be worries how this could serve as a positive precedent to other movements within the EU," he says. "So I think that the Scottish would have to convince the other partners that they would be a good partner within the European policymaking environment and that their case is a special one which would not serve as a precedent for others."
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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak covers the European Union and NATO for RFE/RL from his base in Brussels.​ Write to him at


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