What does leaving the EU mean for Scotland?

Published: 15th Jul 2016

This article is largely based on the briefings by the House of Commons Library,‘EU referendum: impact of an EU exit in key UK policy areas’ and 'Brexit: what happens next?' . The opinions and judgements it contains are theirs. We expect to review and add to these articles periodically as events develop.

62% of Scottish voters voted in favour of remaining in the EU. Taken individually, all 32 local authority areas in Scotland voted to remain.

Constitutional questions

A second independence vote would need the UK government’s agreement

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said that the outcome of the EU referendum meets the conditions for holding a second referendum on Scottish independence, as laid out in the SNP’s manifesto:

“...the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is … a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”

In order to hold another independence referendum, the UK government would have to agree.

Ms Sturgeon has stated that she will “explore every option” for protecting Scotland’s position in the EU.

The law on devolution will probably have to be changed

The Scotland Act 1998, which devolved some powers to Scotland, says that Scottish Parliament laws must be compatible with EU laws. This will probably have to be changed.

The UK government says that it won’t generally change any devolved legislation without the approval of the Scottish Parliament, and Ms Sturgeon has said that she will ask it to refuse consent to the change.

If the Scottish Parliament doesn’t give its approval, making the change could be politically controversial. This won’t stop the UK from being able to leave the EU, as it retains the power to overrule the Scottish Parliament if it wants to.

Currently, Scotland can’t join the EU as a member in its own right

The UK government is responsible for managing relations with the EU, and any other international treaties, on behalf of Scotland, as well as implementing EU economic policies and elements of single market legislation.

The Scottish government is responsible for implementing EU regulations that relate to devolved powers, such as agriculture, fisheries and the environment. It also administers EU funding in Scotland, including Structural Funds and the Common Agricultural Policy.

Scotland isn’t classed as a state under international law, so it isn’t capable of signing and ratifying international treaties or conducting its own foreign relations. Currently, Scotland couldn’t be an EU member in its own right, nor could it sign an Association Agreement with the EU.

Some countries and territories have a special relationship with the EU without being member countries in their own right. Overseas Countries and Territories have duty- and quota-free access to the EU single market for goods, and automatically receive better terms of trade in services. But all of them are linked to a current EU member, rather than being part of a non-member, as the UK will become.

If Scotland wanted to become one of these countries, the definition in the EU treaties would have to change. The current definition is ‘the non-European countries and territories which have special relations with Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom’.

If Scotland became independent, it’s not certain on what terms it could become an EU member

There has never been a case where part of an EU country has become independent and then had to determine its membership as a separate state—let alone when the rest of the country is leaving the EU.

The House of Commons Library says that there are at least three general possibilities for what could happen, depending on how Scottish independence was categorised under international law.

  1. If Scottish independence was classed as a ‘continuation’ of the UK and ‘secession’ of Scotland, the rest of the UK would retain its treaty obligations and membership of international organisations but Scotland would not.
  2. If Scottish independence was classed as a ‘separation’ of the UK, both Scotland and the rest of the UK would retain these obligations and memberships.
  3. If it was classed as a ‘dissolution’ of the UK, both Scotland and the rest of the UK would lose them.

The Library says that the first of these options would be the most likely in this scenario, but because the rest of the UK does not want to keep its EU treaty obligations a different outcome is possible.

The 1978 Vienna Convention sets out how a newly-independent country could sign up to treaties that were in force in its territory before independence, simply by notifying the other countries in the treaties. But the UK hasn’t signed this treaty.

Whatever the position in international law, the House of Commons Library says a decision on Scotland’s status in the EU is likely to be a political one.

If all the EU member countries agreed, they might be able to find a way for an independent Scotland to inherit the UK’s place, subject to negotiations on the details of membership.

On the other hand, the Library points out, EU member countries with concerns about separatist movements in their own countries might argue that Scotland should lose its membership along with the rest of the UK, and hold up or even veto any process for Scotland to join.

Scotland’s economy and the EU

Around 42% of Scotland’s international exports went to the EU in 2014, the most recent year for which these statistics are available, worth about £11.6 billion. Six of Scotland’s top ten export destinations were EU countries.

Non-EU countries receive an increasing share of Scotland’s international exports. Exports to the EU have grown by 6% since 2002, while exports to the rest of the world have grown by 74%.

Between 2009 and 2013, non-UK European businesses were responsible for about 15.6% of the value added by businesses to the Scottish economy, totalling about £15.8 billion. This is the highest share of any UK country or region. This includes activity by businesses from non-EU countries in Europe, in particular Norway and Switzerland.

Migration and the EU

Like other EU citizens, Scottish citizens have had a right to work and study across the EU. Whether free movement continues after the UK has left the EU will depend on what agreement we make with the EU.

Between 1973 (when the UK joined the EU) and 2003, the Scottish population either saw minimal growth or decreased in size. Since 2004, Scotland’s population has increased by about 0.5% every year.

The National Records of Scotland attribute this increase, in part, to immigration from the eight central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004.

Higher Education

Students from EU countries outside of the UK can study at Scottish universities for free. In 2013-14, 13,550 EU students from outside the UK studied at Scottish universities, costing the Scottish Government £25.6 million.

Read more about how higher education might be affected by leaving the EU here.

European funding

Scotland has benefited from European funds being spent in Scotland, but it has also contributed payments to the EU budget as part of the UK. Research by the Scottish Government has found that Scotland is in effect a net contributor to the EU budget, as the UK as a whole is.

Between 2007 and 2013, Scotland benefited from around €4.5 billion of Common Agricultural Policy funding. A further €4.6 billion had been earmarked for Scotland from 2014-2020.

Between 2007 and 2013 Scotland also received around €800 million in European Structural Funds.

Scotland has benefited from the EU’s research and development funding, which organisations have to compete for. Scottish organisations were awarded over €111 million from the Horizon 2020 programme in the allocations made up to June 2015. UK universities will probably lose access to EU research funding when we leave the EU.


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