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The Future of the United Kingdom: Will Scotland seek Independence and return to the EU?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

As of 31st January 2020, the UK has formally exited the European Union and entered into an ‘implementation period’ whilst future UK-EU relations are negotiated. This means that the UK will still be bound by existing EU laws, remain a member of the customs union and single market but has surrendered its right to vote on EU law.[1]However, in light of this, the argument for a second independence referendum in Scotland; known widely as ‘Indyref2’, has resurfaced, therefore opening up the possibility of Scotland rejoining the European Union as an independent and fully autonomous nation.


Since the passage of the Acts of Union in 1707, Scotland and England have been legally united and is under the sovereignty of Westminster (although the Scottish Parliament has been given increased devolved powers since 1998). A modern Scottish independence movement however has undeniably been influenced by the growth and dominance of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in recent years. This can in part be attributed to the leadership of Alex Salmond who has been described as the “architect”[2] of the SNP’s rise to power, which has continued under the leadership of his successor Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP’s dominance in Scottish politics, having won the past six successive general elections in Scotland (four of which were by margin of over 20%), has raised both support and awareness for the independence cause. The party has also maintained their ambition for Scotland to secede from UK and rejoin the European Union.[3]They argue that, despite losing in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, the outcome of the European Union Referendum two years ago has changed the stakes for Scotland who voted overwhelmingly to remain in Europe (only 38% in support of leaving).

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has suggested that Scotland is therefore being “dragged” against their will[4], giving rise to legitimate grounds for another vote on independence.

Although in 2014 only 45% of Scottish voters supported independence, some polls after Brexit have placed demand at 50% or higher[5], implying that a new referendum could return a majority in favour of an independent Scotland. This is not to say that all voters who support independence also support Scottish accession to the EU, as both issues are questions of sovereignty. Some may argue against sharing sovereignty with Brussels after only just gaining it from Westminster, however these are the dual aims of the Scottish National Party. Should Scotland become independent from the UK, the party may need to hold their own EU referendum.

Could Scotland rejoin Europe?

Yes, Scotland could apply for EU membership in the normal way, under the procedure set out in Article 49 TEU. This is supported by the findings of a recent report called “The EU Blueprint: Pathway for Scotland's Accession to the European Union under Independence", written by Brussels expert Anthony Salamone which states that Scotland does meet the ‘Copenhagen Criteria’ required for joining.[6]As well as this, former EU council leader Donald Tusk has gone further and controversially uplifted the campaign for independence by saying he would be “enthusiastic” for Scotland to rejoin[7]. From Scotland’s point of view, there are some strong arguments for re-joining the European Union, first and foremost the guarantee of the EU’s four freedoms for its citizens: Edinburgh could seek an arrangement that would continue its participation in the single market, including free movement of workers. If such an arrangement was implemented, this could see the relocation of some UK businesses from London to Edinburgh due to a better position for trading with Europe, therefore boosting the Scottish economy in the process.

Sturgeon herself has commented on this -

“no country has any guarantee of prosperity, I don’t think an independent Scotland will be poorer” but “there are risks”[8].

However, the fact that she hasn’t made hyperbolic economic promises such as some of those made in the 2016 ‘leave campaign’ about a post-withdrawal trade boom[9]perhaps shows a measured and realistic approach.

She also believes that “a referendum can absolutely happen this year”[10]. Constitutionally, this is dependent however on whether the SNP can convince Westminster to grant another independence referendum (and win over 50% of the vote); which currently looks unlikely since Boris Johnson has sworn that so long as he’s Prime Minister he will not grant one[11]. Nevertheless, Sturgeon has not ruled out holding non-binding poll unsanctioned ‘consultative referendum’ to provide a mandate for independence. Realistically, this is her only option if she can't convince Boris, and it is expected that the SNP will promise a referendum in the Scottish Parliament election manifesto next year.[12]

A Scottish Backstop?

Now, against the background of the UK finally withdrawing from the European Union, Scotland’s internal independence movement is turning to Westminster. As well as the lack of support from the Prime Minister, there are several other practical barriers to the SNP’s twin goals for independence from the UK and accession to the European Union. A key issue concerns borders, since this would mean a non-EU state bordering an EU state, this would likely require the creation of a hard border with more rigorous checks. Implementing such checks between deeply entwined regions is not only difficult but could lead a similar situation to that at the Irish border which created delay and proved itself as one of the most controversial issues during the Brexit negotiations. It has also been questioned whether, after having experienced how divisive a divorce can be, Scottish voters will be enthusiastic for another. However, Sturgeon maintains that the SNP have “a detailed prospectus for what would happen after the yes vote”[13] rather than years of negotiations and deadlock.

Ultimately, if Scotland did become independent and subsequently the 28th member of the EU this would drastically change makeup of the UK, such as by the creation of a hard-border with England and the adoption of the Euro; a non-negotiable requirement for any new member state. There are however many challenges and constitutional questions ahead for Scotland if it does choose to pursue this course.

Cara Hart

Feature Writer



[1] Graeme Cowie, ‘Withdrawal Agreement Bill: Implementing the transition period’, House of Commons Library (22nd October 2019)

[2] Severin Carrell, ‘Alex Salmond profile: architect of the SNP's rise to power’ The Guardian (24 January 2019)

[3] Scottish National Party, ‘What is the SNP’s position on the EU?’ <>

[4] Finlay Greig, ‘Will Scotland get a second independence referendum? What Nicola Sturgeon, Boris Johnson and the polls have said about Indyref2’ The Scotsman (19 December 2019)

[5] Callum Main, ‘New YouGov poll shows support for Scottish Independence’, The Evening Standard (30 January 2020)

[6] Jonathan Read, ‘An independent Scotland could rejoin the EU in five years’ The New European (17 February 2020)

[7]Severin Carrell, ‘Tusk: EU would be enthusiastic if Scotland applied to rejoin’

[8] Nicola Sturgeon, ‘Queen of the North’ Interview with the Guardian Weekend (15 February 2020)

[9] Marcus Gibson, ‘The economy's Brexit boom may come to be more important than Brexit day itself’ The Telegraph (31 January 2020)

[10] Ibid

[11] Libby Brooks, 'Boris Johnson refuses to grant Scotland powers to hold independence vote’ The Guardian (14 January 2020)

[12] Jonathan Read, ‘An independent Scotland could rejoin the EU in five years’ The New European (17 February 2020)

[13] Nicola Sturgeon, ‘Queen of the North’ Interview with the Guardian Weekend (15 February 2020)

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