“No member state has suggested that it would seek to block Scottish membership.”
Alex Salmond, 17 February 2014
A week is a long time in politics, and this has been an especially turbulent week in the battle for the future of Scotland.
First George Osborne effectively ruled out the Scottish National Party (SNP) plan for a currency union with the rest of the UK.
Then the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, said it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the European Union.
On the face of it, these are potentially serious blows for those who want Scots to vote Yes to the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” in the referendum on 18 September.
But the SNP leader and Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, hit back on a number of fronts today in a speech to business leaders in Aberdeen.
Did Mr Salmond’s claims on Scotland’s prospects for EU membership pass the FactCheck test?
The big question here is whether Scotland can retain membership of the EU in the event of a Yes vote.
The SNP position is that Scotland will be able to negotiate continued membership while still part of the UK, in the transitional period after a Yes vote but before independence is declared, perhaps 18 months later.
Expert opinion on whether this is legal or practical is sharply divided. Veteran EU negotiator Graham Avery, the European Commission’s honorary director general, backs the SNP’s position, as does Sir David Edward, a former British judge at the European Court of Justice.
And the SNP has also noted with glee that Professor James Crawford, a legal advisor to the UK government, described the nationalist estimate of 18 months to negotiate EU membership as “realistic”.
On the other side we have the European Commission, the Spanish government and various other eminent law professors, who think a newly independent Scottish state will have to go through a long, complex application process and could be blocked from joining if countries like Spain exercise their veto.
We don’t have a sensible way of resolving this war of the experts, other than to note that, since there is no precedent for a breakaway bit of an EU member state (re)applying for membership, nobody really knows for sure how this will play out.
If Scotland does find itself outside the EU on the day independence is declared, there has long been a fear that Spain, opposed to separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country, will be unsympathetic and could veto Scotland’s EU membership bid.
What would Spain actually do? We don’t really know, although the country’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy appeared to take a rather ominous tone when he addressed the issue last November.
He said: “It’s very clear to me, as it is for everybody else in the world, that a country that would obtain independence from the EU would remain out of the EU, and that is good for Scottish citizens to know and for all EU citizens to know.
“In no way does it benefit our European regions and our citizens to propose divisions or solo adventures in an uncertain future in which the exit points may seem clear but the destination is unknown.”
But in February this year the Spanish foreign minister José-Manuel García-Margallo appeared to strike a softer note when he said: “We don’t interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.
“If Britain’s constitutional order allows – and it seems that it does allow – Scotland to choose independence, we have nothing to say about this.”
This has been widely quoted by the SNP as evidence that the Spanish would have “nothing to say” about Scotland trying to join the EU.
Scotland’s finance minister John Swinney told the BBC: “That indicates to me quite clearly that the Spanish government will have no stance to take on the question of Scottish membership of the European Union.”
But we think that’s putting a good deal of spin on the Spanish foreign minister’s actual words.
The original Financial Times article in which these quotes first surfaced makes it clear that Mr García-Margallo wasn’t actually talking about EU membership here when he said Spain would have “nothing to say”.
He meant the Spanish government would not presume to interfere or criticise Britain for going through with the referendum, even though Madrid doesn’t want its Catalan minority to have a similar vote.
He wasn’t promising that Spain would not exercise its veto. The article clearly states that the minister “refused to comment directly on whether Spain might veto Scottish accession to the EU after an independence vote”.
So really there is little evidence of a softening of position here. Spain’s prime minister and foreign minister both think Scotland would have to apply for membership, and that negotiating entry to the EU would be lengthy, complex and uncertain.
Neither of them has said Spain will veto Scotland. That makes Mr Salmond’s claim technically correct. But neither has explicitly ruled a veto out either.
Spain may well have new government after December 2015 in any event, so the possibility of a Spanish veto remains on the table.
And sources have told Channel 4 News’s Political Editor Gary Gibbon that Mr Barroso thinks it’s not just Spain who might block entry for Scotland: Germany and Belgium have misgivings too.
We think there has been some quite serious mis-reporting of José-Manuel García-Margallo’s comments today. The Spanish government has not said it will definitely veto EU membership for Scotland, but it has not ruled it out either.
That makes Mr Salmond’s claim technically correct, but it means a major question mark over Scotland’s future continues to loom on the horizon.