By Michael Settle, UK Political Editor. The representation of Scotland in foreign and diplomatic affairs - officially reserved to Westminster - is largely undertaken by the UK Government and Whitehall departments through ministers and Britain’s network of embassies and consulates across the globe, as well as a range of organisations like the British Council.
Notwithstanding this, the Scottish Government also uses its good offices to promote Scotland abroad, which includes Alex Salmond occasionally travelling abroad to promote Scottish trade and culture. For example, last December the First Minister made his third official visit to China.
One of the key aspects of foreign policy in relation to the independence debate is whether or not an independent Scotland will have to apply for membership of the EU.
Legal advice for the UK Government says that it will, while the Scottish Government cites contrary lawyers' opinion. Given that there has never been an occasion when a nation within an existing member state has seceded, then the issue is a moot point and one that will be debated up to, and possibly beyond, the referendum, depending on its outcome.
Later this year, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee is to launch an inquiry into what impact the creation of an independent Scotland could have on the UK’s foreign and diplomatic relations.
Below, we outline the contrasting arguments for Scotland becoming independent, or remaining in the UK, and hear the view of an impartial expert on how important this subject will be to the decision.
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An independent Scotland would be able to set its own priorities in foreign and diplomatic affairs, which might not always be the same as the UK’s. For example, the First Minister, while in opposition, expressed his antipathy towards the allied war in Iraq and the Nato intervention in Kosovo.
If there is a for vote in the referendum, Scotland’s input into the UN Security Council would rest on the hope of becoming a non-permanent member for a term of two years.
At present, the SNP is opposed to joining the US-dominated Nato, although there have been recent suggestions that the party is considering changing its stance on opposing an independent Scotland becoming a member of Nato. Its current position is to be a member of Partnership for Peace along with the likes of Sweden, Finland, and Ireland, which co-operate in defence matters with Nato.
However, it is thought many grassroot members believe an independent Scotland should be playing a fuller international role as part of Nato.
There is also the argument that for all its claims of having widespread influence in the world, the UK is talking itself up against the reality, which is that as power moves towards Asia and the BRIC countries, the UK’s importance is diminishing. Scotland would be far better placed attempting to be a strong voice within the even larger unit of the EU even though it too, initially at least, would not be part of the eurozone and within the European Council would have a much smaller voice than the UK currently has.
Scotland, as a comparatively small country, benefits from the greater clout that being part of a larger unit like the UK provides in terms of diplomacy, defence, culture and trade.
The UK is one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, is a key player in Nato, and a member of the Commonwealth.
In dealings on trade and culture with Europe, America, Asia, as well as the increasingly influential “BRIC” countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, the UK uses its long-standing connections, which serves to help Scottish interests. As a corollary, therefore, the argument is that if Scotland were to become independent, then the influence which it shared as part of the Union would be lost.
For example, the UK, despite not being a member of the eurozone, is one of the main players at the European Council, where, by dint of its population, it has a similar voting power to Germany, France and Italy - 29 votes. An independent Scotland, with a population of five million, would, under current rules, have just seven votes, a similar number to Ireland, Lithuania and Slovakia.
In recent EU talks on fish quotas, the UK Government claimed Scotland benefited from a deal securing higher quotas because of the UK’s negotiating strength in Brussels.
An expert's view, from Professor John McLaren, of the Centre for Public Policy for Regions at Glasgow University: Independence could well affect the number of embassies representing Scotland around the world - there might be fewer than there are through the UK, but they could be more focussed on prosecuting Scotland's case.
At European level, an independent Scottish Government might make a stronger case over fishing quotas, but the question is whether the ministers would be listened to as much as the current UK delegation.
There is, though, no doubt that Scotland does not have a very big footprint in the BRIC countries, which are still growing and will continue to grow, compared with the countries we've traditionally exported to.