Kirsty Hughes and Tobias Lock

ONCE Theresa May triggers Article 50 next month, Brexit talks will start. Barring unforeseen developments, the UK will leave the EU by March 2019. If Scotland holds a second independence referendum in autumn 2018, and votes Yes, how – and how quickly – could it become a full EU member state?

The head of the European Commission’s London office said last week an independent Scotland would face a “normal” accession process. But would that mean Scotland disentangling from EU laws only to readopt them shortly afterwards? And could Scotland instead somehow stay in the EU?

If Scotland voted Yes in, say, September 2018, even the fastest estimates suggest it would take 18 months to become independent. That would be March 2020, a full year after Scotland left the EU with the UK.

Once independent, under a normal accession process, Scotland could apply for EU membership immediately. The European Commission would assess the application, make a recommendation to the EU Council and, with a green light, start talks. This pre-talks phase could last until early 2021.

Once started, talks could be fast. Scotland already meets almost all EU laws and regulations – apart from where the UK has opt-outs. The best comparison here is when Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU in 1995 – talks took 17 months.

Scotland’s talks could well be quicker, since it is part of the EU (except for the opt-outs). Talks might conclude in a year, by early 2022. Scotland would then be an observer in EU Council meetings, able to comment but not vote. But ratification of the accession treaties would probably take around two years, with Scotland a full EU member state in 2024.

Out of the EU’s 35 negotiating “chapters” for candidate countries, Scotland already meets the vast majority. But there would be talks on budget, the euro, the border-free Schengen area, and justice and home affairs (where the UK has an “opt-in” deal).

The chances are that Scotland would not keep the UK’s budget rebate. And it would have to commit to eventual euro membership but, like Sweden, could postpone that indefinitely. Scotland would probably keep the border-free Schengen opt-out, so it could be part of the Common Travel Area like Ireland. Politics is part of any accession process. The mood music in the EU towards Scotland is much more positive than in 2014.

And the EU27 might aim to fast-track the process; for instance, holding informal discussions in 2019, perhaps shortening the process by a year. If so, Scotland could be an EU observer in 2021 and a full member by 2023

Equally, there could be hold ups. Spain could veto Scotland’s membership. But as long as the independence referendum meets the UK legal and constitutional requirements, this is unlikely. And Spain is not about to leave the EU, so parallels between the Brexit context and Spain would be weak.

Could Scotland avoid the accession process and secure special status in the EU or even take over the UK’s membership? Special status within the EU looks very difficult. In March 2019, Scotland will be outside the EU and still part of the UK. And taking over the UK’s membership, just at the end of difficult Brexit talks over the UK’s liabilities and exit terms, looks unlikely too.

The real challenge for the EU27, the UK and Scotland will be to ensure a smooth transition. The UK will probably have a transition deal covering the time between Brexit and a new UK-EU trade deal.

Scotland will need a separate, differentiated transition deal – ideally one that, unlike the UK, keeps it within the EU’s single market, customs union and other policies.

And both Westminster and Holyrood will need to legislate to ensure Scotland remains fully compliant with EU law from 2019 to 2020, when Scotland is still within the UK.

One way to simplify this could be for Scotland to become a temporary member of the European Economic Area (through Efta – the free trade area) and so the EU single market. If it had an exemption from Efta’s trade deals, it could also stay in the EU’s customs union.

The Scottish Government’s proposals for keeping Scotland in the UK and the EU single market are pertinent here. They look tricky for a long-standing deal. But as a road map for Scotland’s transition to a full EU member state, they could come into their own.

In the end, whether normal, fast-track or with a special transition deal, Scotland would face a fairly straightforward path to the EU. It might even have the fastest accession process of any EU state so far.

A longer version of this article can be read online at

Kirsty Hughes, senior fellow, Friends of Europe, and Tobias Lock, co-director, Europa Institute, University of Edinburgh