Call for independence referendum in Scotland raises fresh quandary for science

Scottish researchers eager to maintain EU ties are facing a Brexit quandary: which is the most science-friendly union – the UK or the EU?


Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon this week asked for a second independence referendum – in part to stop the nation being pulled out of the EU – and wants the vote to take place before Brexit, which is likely to be finalised at the end of March 2019.

In the referendum on EU membership last June, people in Scotland voted by 62 per cent to 38 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU.

A second independence referendum would leave researchers facing a complicated question: which is the most financially secure, science-friendly union of which to be a part, the UK or the EU?

In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the majority of scientists rejected breaking free from the UK, feeling that remaining would be better for the country’s research sector.

But researchers say they may vote differently next time round. The prospect of a hard Brexit has pulled out the rug, leading many to calculate whether Scotland would be better off financially with the EU than as part of an independent Britain.

But how exactly could Scotland go about maintaining its EU ties? Here are some of the alternative models an independent Scotland could look at.

Half-in, half-out like Norway                           

The easiest initial route to the EU for independent Scotland to consider would be to follow Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein and seek membership of the European Economic Area – as a potential springboard to full EU membership in the future.

This option includes many thing that Scotland seeks, such as single market access and free movement, while steering clear of things it may wish to avoid, such as an obligation to join Schengen and the euro, and adopt rules on fisheries.

Under this model, Scotland would be free to sign separate trade agreements with non-EU countries, a politically attractive option, as Scotland would presumably want to retain a close economic relationship with the remaining UK members.

The downside of this arrangement is to not formally be invited to the table to discuss legislative proposals.

Norway, for example, implements about 75 per cent of EU legislation, despite only having meagre input into its drafting. The country also makes a sizeable payment to the EU budget, meaning it gets out less than it puts into Horizon 2020, for instance.

Do a Switzerland

Scotland could also try emulate the slightly more detached relationship Switzerland has with the EU, keeping access to the internal market, free movement, EU citizenship, and at the same time have more flexibility than Norway to opt out of legislation.

However, the Scottish government would be required to painstakingly negotiate agreements sector-by-sector. It would do so from a position of weakness given the difference in population size between the EU and Scotland.

Switzerland found this out the hard way when it voted in a 2014 referendum to implement immigration quotas for neighbouring EU countries – a violation of the EU’s principle of free movement of people.

Brussels reacted immediately and ruthlessly by freezing Switzerland out of the first round of competitions in Horizon 2020.

What followed was a standoff lasting three years. Eventually, Switzerland blinked first.

Get back full club privileges  

How Scotland would get back into the EU is hardly obvious, since unanimous agreement between member states is required for a new member. Scotland is sure to run into problems with Spain, which is seeking to contain its own separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque country, and is therefore unlikely to do Scots any favours.

As the Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis said this week, Scotland, “would have to queue, meet the requirements for entry, hold negotiations and the result would be that these negotiations would take place.”

This would lead Scotland on an accession path under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, often lengthy, but which could conceivably be fast-tracked in light of existing EU membership and the sympathy felt by many in Brussels for a country that voted to remain in the bloc.

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Related subjects: Scotland, Brexit