Dispelling Scotland’s European Union Myths

Scotland’s politicians do not know what they are talking about. We know this because they were exposed when, in 2012, the Scottish independence debate hit the world stage. Scarcely a month went by without more ‘breaking news’ detailing how Scotland would fare without the rest of the UK. Similarly, an independent Scotland’s EU status dominated headlines, particularly after three high-ranking European Commissioners commented on the accession process for new EU applicants.

Yet despite the increased media coverage, the entire independence debate, particularly the EU aspects, is still dominated by conjecture and speculation. In general, there is a the lack of awareness about what the EU is and does, but with independence, even the highest-profile leaders seem to lack basic knowledge about what joining, re-joining or staying within the EU involves.

The SNP has always been a party based on utopian policies, with a systemic disregard for how to achieve them, but this time the whole debate is shrouded in uncertainty; both pro-independence and pro-union observers are guilty of speaking about issues that they have little knowledge about. Unfortunately, this confusion trickles down to us, the general public, at a time when many people are trying to decide whether to say ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ in 2014.

So let’s dispel some of the myths and erode the misconceptions. What do we know? Or more importantly, what should we know?

We should know that EU enlargement is not a new concept. In the last four decades, 21 new Member States have joined in six separate enlargements. Their accession experiences have varied considerably. Some have been rapid; Finland became a member less than three years after applying. Others have been painfully slow; Turkey first applied for membership in 1987 and is still far from acceptance.

The slower pace of more recent applications is often due to ‘enlargement fatigue’ amongst existing member states. The economic crisis also diverted the EU’s priorities and specific problems within individual applicant countries, such as Croatia’s full compliance with the International Criminal Court, are also relevant. Put simply, the latest enlargements have been hindered by more stringent requirements and greater scrutiny of applicants.

It is ‘Article 49’ of the European Union’s treaty which establishes the conditions of eligibility for applying for EU membership. Yet the Treaty has been described “vague” or “imperfect” and some observers feel that Article 49 is deliberately short on detail as it is simply an outline. What we can be certain of is that accession is the political nature of accession. It is primarily controlled by the existing member states, not the EU institutions. We also know that the pace of the accession procedure will differ for every applicant even though there are routine steps which apply to all applications.

Firstly, any applicants must submit an application to the European Council.  If agreed, the applicant will be granted ‘candidate’ status by the European Council, following the opinion of the European Commission. There is no guarantee that this will lead immediately to the opening of negotiations but it does mark the beginning of the accession procedure.

The next step is the opening of negotiations, which can only be started after all member states in the European Council unanimously vote to do so. Generally, the European Commission must also confirm that the applicant is compliant with the ‘Copenhagen criteria’; the rules which define if a country is eligible to join the Union.

The negotiations are preceded by a series of meetings between the Commission and the candidate country. This ‘screening’ involves a detailed examination of the candidate’s conformity with the acquis; the existing laws and policies of the EU. In the case of Iceland this process was completed in seven months, whilst Croatia’s screening lasted one year.

Based on this process, the European Council, which is made up of representatives from every member state, can then invite the candidate country to open negotiations on the 35 negotiation chapters covering the entirety of the EU acquis. The speed at which chapters can be closed varies significantly depending on the issue and the state of readiness of the candidate. Whilst one or more chapters can theoretically be opened and closed on the same day, unanimous agreement required so problems over a single chapter can also block progress indefinitely.

The ‘unanimous’ aspect of the accession process is usually the main obstacle. Not only must the European Council must act unanimously but it must also consult with the Commission and receive the consent of the European Parliament. More importantly, all member states must ratify the agreements. If any member state has concerns about the acceptance of a given state, the accession process will stall quickly, so the speed of accession often depends purely on political will and member state intransigence.

The EU’s current enlargement agenda (acceding, candidate and potential candidate countries) covers the Western Balkans, Turkey and Iceland. Croatia is scheduled to become a full member of the EU on 1 July 2013. The Accession Treaty was signed on December 2011 and has already been ratified in most member states. However, Germany has indicated that it will wait until the next of the Commission’s six monthly reports on Croatia’s readiness (due in spring 2013) before ratification. Croatia’s accession is notable for its lengthy negotiation period lasting more than six years. This was in large due to concerns raised by certain existing EU states, notably Slovenia, and indicative of the accession process’s vulnerability to bilateral disputes.

On the other hand, Iceland’s candidature radically differs to Croatia and other potential candidate countries. As a member of the European Economic Area, it has been transposing and implementing the EU acquis for nearly twenty years and has been implementing provisions of the Schengen Agreement for more than ten years. When it formally applied for membership in June 2009, suggestions were made that Iceland’s application could be “fast-tracked” to coincide with that of Croatia, despite the latter having applied six years earlier. However, the Commission was quick to rule out any special path and Iceland has only closed 11 of the 27 negotiation chapters which it has opened. Negotiation is yet to begin on four difficult chapters, including fisheries; undoubtedly a key obstacle facing Icelandic accession.

For Scotland, it is important to remember that the speed of accession depends on how integrated the country is with the EU beforehand. It also depends on the opinions of other member states. If Scots vote ‘yes’ to independence in 2014, EU officials would probably welcome them with open arms and the accession process would probably be quicker than that of most other candidates. Nevertheless, it would still take time. It certainly will not be immediate.

What our politicians must tell us is how the economy will be affected if Scotland’s accession process would take 2-3 years. What would life be like outside of the EU? What will the impacts be on farmers, fishermen and every other Scottish industry which currently relies on the EU and its single market? The time for ambiguity and vagueness is over. Many Scots will be making their minds up about independence in 2013. Instead of trying to sway the vote by dogmatically prophesising about what an independent Scotland in the EU would look like, political leaders in Edinburgh and Brussels should be giving Scots the hard facts about the path to this apparent utopia.