IF Scotland were an independent EU member state, it would be the 18th largest (after the UK has left). It would sit in the middle of a group of similarly-sized countries including Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, and Ireland.

But for now Scotland, with the rest of the UK, will leave the EU at the end of the month – a move that will strongly reduce the UK, and Scotland’s, influence in Europe and internationally.

The Scottish Government aspires to independence in the EU, with much of that debate focusing narrowly on to EU accession criteria or how long joining the EU would take. But there are bigger questions here, deserving of more attention, both around what sort of member state an independent Scotland might be, and of what the Scottish Government can do now to reinforce European relations despite Brexit.

Many in Scotland have looked at the EU’s support for Ireland through the tortuous Brexit process and seen a small country with a seat at the table, that has had the strong backing of the other 26 EU member states, and that played an exemplary diplomatic game throughout. But being a small country in the EU isn’t always easy. It takes political nous, strategy, compromise and collaboration. The EU’s smaller states adapt to its terrain in different ways, with varying political outlooks, and differing degrees of success.

So how does the current world of smaller EU states look as we enter a new decade? The EU is primarily made up of smaller states, a fact that often gets overlooked as the shifting political dynamics of the Franco-German couple sit centre stage. And certainly, the larger member states have always had more power. But the EU has always run too on a mixture of one-off and longer term coalitions between different countries. Even at the start, in 1957, the smaller threesome of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg cooperated as the Benelux group to hold their own in the face of the larger trio of France, Germany and Italy.

READ MORE: SNP MP admits chance of Indyref2 this year is probably ‘nil’ 

Today, one of the newest groupings of smaller states is the so-called new Hanseatic League covering the Netherlands, Ireland and the Nordic and Baltic states. The League was set up in 2018, driven partly by the looming impact of Brexit: to many the UK was an important EU partner who needed replacing with new networks. But the Hanseatic League also aims to oppose France’s efforts to loosen orthodox economic and monetary policies around the euro.

So while an independent Scotland might indeed be well advised to look first to its geographical neighbours for alliances, a neoliberal Hanseatic grouping would not be the most obvious place to start. But within that group there are countries Scotland could learn from. Ireland has worked hard at putting itself in the core of the EU – joining the euro, even while staying out of Schengen to protect the Ireland-UK common travel area. Finland too similarly made sure it is not on the sidelines.

But an independent Scotland in the EU is not expected to join the euro in a hurry so it would be less of a core player. And the motley group of eight member states not in the euro including, apart from Denmark and Sweden, six central and eastern European member states, is not strong. The UK, with its euro opt-out, gave a certain clout to this group, disappearing now given Brexit.

Perhaps an independent Scotland could be like Sweden – putting off indefinitely joining the euro, progressive on human rights, gender, climate change and migration? Or it could look further afield for role models – Portugal is currently showing how anti-austerity policies can work, just about, while being within the eurozone.

READ MORE: Sturgeon reassures EU citizens in New Year message

Whatever the strategy and policy stance, being a well-regarded EU member state depends on playing a constructive, cooperative game, with excellent diplomatic and networking skills, building bilateral and multilateral alliances, showing commitment to the EU as a whole not just to one’s own narrow interests. Certainly, an independent Scotland in the EU – and in accession negotiations – would have, not least, to show it was not going to be a mini-UK, being one of the awkward squad and demanding (though not getting) multiple opt-outs.

All this is some way off, should Scotland eventually choose independence. But her international and European relationships need more not less work now to limit the damage that Brexit will do.

The Scottish Government has already taken various initiatives in its European work. It has a Nordic-Baltic strategy. And it has established government offices and “innovation and investment” hubs (proto-embassies perhaps) in Brussels, Dublin, London, Paris and Berlin. A new review into strengthening Ireland-Scotland relationships should report this March.

READ MORE: Foreign property investors poised to swoop on Scotland 

But there is much more that could be done. The European Union is at the start of a new five-year term – with new Commission and Council presidents and big challenges ahead in a turbulent world. Scotland should have a clear European strategy setting out its interests and goals for the EU, and how it would hope to contribute and participate even from the outside, ranging from the environment and climate change to human rights, education, research, culture, competitiveness and the much-discussed green new deal. Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands – even big regions like Bavaria – have clearly set out European strategies.

True, foreign policy is not a devolved power but around the world cities, regions and sub-states are increasingly cooperating internationally on many key issues. Yet the Scottish Government seems a little nervous of being seen to have too clear or deliberate a para-diplomacy strategy. Such nerves should be set aside.

A Scottish European strategy could be the centre of a wider international strategy and would strengthen Scotland’s bilateral relationships across the EU. That would be helpful to Scotland today and, potentially, to the Scottish Government’s EU accession aspirations.

Paradiplomacy on climate change is one example. There will quite likely be a row in 2020 over the next big climate summit, COP26, taking place in Glasgow in the autumn – the UK Government will aim to be centre stage and side-line the Scottish Government. But a Scottish Government that is working strategically with other EU member states, showing adept paradiplomacy, in the run up to COP26 may hold its own perfectly well.

Amidst the Brexit furore, Scotland has established a quite distinct, pro-European image across the EU. The challenge now is to build on that to promote Scotland’s wide, dense range of Scottish-EU networks and interests. And if that is done well, Scotland will already be showing – to itself and to the EU – the sort of member state an independent Scotland might one day be.

Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations