Speaking at the launch of the SNP Manifesto for the Scottish Parliament elections on 16th April 2021, Nicola Sturgeon said that it was not her policy to hold a separate referendum on whether an independent Scotland should join the European Union.

If the “Yes” side wins the independence referendum, Nicola would take that as the green light for Scotland to join the EU. Thus Indyref2 would become a double referendum, with a vote in favour of independence being taken automatically as a vote also in favour of EU membership.

The First Minister went on to explain that she had supported a second referendum on Brexit being held prior to the UK leaving the EU because “people did not know what they were voting for at the time of the Brexit negotiations and that would not be the case in an independence referendum”.

If the First Minister wants to win a second independence referendum, she will have to ditch the double-referendum policy. It is a huge and unnecessary hostage to fortune which the No side will exploit to the full. Mixing up the decision on independence with the issue of EU membership would scupper the chances of success in Indyref2 just as the currency issue did in the 2014 independence referendum.

Under Nicola’s scenario we would be asking people to vote for EU membership without the Scottish people knowing what they are being asked to vote for; the very same reason why Nicola decided to support a second EU referendum being held prior to Brexit taking place.

In refusing to give her estimate of how long it would take for an independent Scotland to become a member of the EU, Nicola added the comment that there were “many voices” who did not think it would be a lengthy process.

These “many voices” tend to be mainly EU fanatics who aren’t living in the real world. Even if such negotiations were through an accelerated process for accession, this would still be a matter of years, not months, as anyone who has dealt with the EU knows. Just ask the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. He has first-hand experience of how badly Brussels treats small nations.

No matter how lengthy the negotiations, they can’t start until Scotland has become an independent state. The EU can’t and won’t negotiate with the Yes campaign; it can only deal with the Scottish state once it is established.

HeraldScotland: Former SNP MSP Alex NeilFormer SNP MSP Alex Neil


Until those negotiations are completed between an independent Scotland and the EU, we won’t know, for example, whether Scotland will be required to join the euro as a condition of membership. We won’t know if or when we will be required to reduce our fiscal deficit to three per cent or less of GDP. We won’t know what the transition arrangements will be, what their impact will be on the Scottish economy and how long they will last. Any agreement between the independent Scottish Government and the EU will have to be ratified by all 27 member states. We won’t know what concessions we will be forced to make on issues like fishing rights in Scottish waters in order to satisfy these 27 member states.

In effect we will be asking the Scottish people to sign a blank cheque to the EU and to endorse membership terms and conditions without knowing what they are. No negotiator worth their salt would weaken Scotland’s bargaining position in this way. The EU would eat an independent Scotland for breakfast, proverbially speaking, if we are remotely stupid enough to sell the jerseys in this way to the EU, or anyone else for that matter.

Worse still we would be signing up to creating customs barriers between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK as the latter would remain outside the EU customs union while an independent Scotland would be in it. Such an arrangement would make the current problems around the Northern Ireland Protocol look like the proverbial Sunday School picnic.

Given that 60% of Scottish exports go to the rest of the UK, such a policy would also inevitably lead to a huge adverse impact on Scottish manufacturing, including a significant loss of high-quality jobs; which are already a scarce enough commodity within Scotland. This isn’t unionist scaremongering. It is facing up to reality.


For all these reasons, the sensible and logical strategy is to focus the Indyref2 campaign totally on winning our independence from the UK and leaving the decision about joining the EU to another day.

A daily diet of anti-Brexit hysteria isn’t a sound basis on which to decide Scotland’s future. Our independence prospectus needs to relate to the world as it is, not as it was. It also needs to be positive, forward-looking and upbeat, not a big moan about the failings of UK Government and Brexit.

It is true that the Scottish people might well decide that our future lies in being an independent member state within the European Union.

But that decision should be made once we are an independent country. It should be a democratic decision of the Scottish people in a future single-issue referendum, once we know the details of the terms and conditions on which we are being invited to join.

Meantime, there is an alternative strategy which the SNP would be wise to consider, often referred to as “the Norway option”.

An independent Scotland could join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), whose other member states are Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Joining EFTA could be achieved almost immediately upon becoming independent.

Membership of this organisation would allow Scotland to gain many of the advantages of EU membership without most of the downsides. As an EFTA member, Scotland could be part of the European Economic Area, which would provide free access to EU markets whilst allowing us to enter into free trade agreements with other countries.

Such a policy would not prejudice any future decision regarding Scotland’s membership of the EU. That would still be subject to the democratic decision of the Scottish people. This would be the sensible way forward, which would cater for the unique position Scotland finds herself in. It would also demonstrate to the world that we can be good Europeans without having to be in the EU.

Alex Neil is a former Holyrood cabinet minister and ex-SNP MSP