AN independent Scotland would be one of only a handful of countries to join the EU without a stand-alone referendum under Nicola Sturgeon’s plans.

The First Minister, who has said she wants a second vote on UK membership by 2024, said last April it was not her policy to have another vote on returning to the EU.

Instead, she said that an independent Scotland would automatically apply for membership of the 27-member trading bloc in order to “escape from Brexit”.

That policy would in effect make Indyref2 a double referendum, a combined vote on two huge constitutional questions - both leaving the UK and rejoining the EU.

It is also a policy which is now being openly questioned by some SNP members who say a stand-alone EU referendum is a matter of democracy.

Under Ms Sturgeon’s plan, Scotland would be in a minority of states who joined the EU or its predecessors after the initial six-member European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s.

The UK did not have a referendum before it joined the then European Community in 1973, but it did have one two years later on whether to remain a member, plus of course the 2016 referendum on whether to leave that led to Brexit. Ireland and Denmark, which joined alongside the UK in 1973, did have referendums beforehand.

In the six rounds of enlargement since, only six countries have joined without a referendum: Greece (joined 1981), Spain and Portugal (1986), Cyprus (2004), Bulgaria and Romania (2007).

The other 13 new members all joined after referendums: Austria, Finland, Sweden (joined 1994), Malta, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary (2004), and Croatia (2013). In addition, Norway twice held a referendum on membership, in 1972 and 1994, both of which rejected the idea.


In May 1992, Switzerland applied for accession to the EU, but in December that year a referendum on European Economic Area membership ended in a narrow rejection. The Swiss government then froze negotiations on EU membership and ultimately withdrew its application in 2016.

And Iceland applied for membership in 2009 after the financial crash battered its economy, but froze negotiations in 2013 with a promise to have a referendum before reviving them.

In its 2019 General Election manifesto, when Brexit was yet to be finalised, the SNP said it wanted a second referendum on the EU in order to remain in it.

“We will work with others across Scotland and the UK to escape from Brexit. In a UK context, we will support a second EU referendum with Remain on the ballot paper. And if it is the only alternative to a ‘no deal’ Brexit, we will support the revocation of Article 50.”

However there was no EU referendum in last year’s Holyrood manifesto.

Under “Rejoin the EU”, it said: “The people of Scotland voted decisively to remain within the European Union and we firmly believe that EU membership is the best option for Scotland. Brexit undoubtedly changes the way that Scotland engages with the EU, but it will not change the EU’s importance to Scotland, nor our commitment to rejoining the EU as soon as possible.”

The Herald:

Asked to clarify if EU re-entry would only happen after a second EU referendum, the FM said: “That’s not my policy. The second EU referendum we talked about before was to try at the 11th hour [to stop] Scotland being dragged out the EU and then out of the transition period against our will. Unfortunately that didn’t prove to be possible.

She added: “One of the reasons I thought a second EU referendum became something that could be justified was that the implementation of the Brexit vote was a disaster.

“That all stemmed from the fact that people were asked to vote in that Brexit referendum without really knowing what Brexit meant, without knowing what form of relationship with the EU would replace membership for the UK, and that’s why nobody then could find a way of implementing it safely and effectively.

“I don’t intend that to be the case for independence. Just as in 2014, people [will have] a detailed prospectus on which to base their vote.”

Asked if Indyref2 would therefore be an effective double referendum, Ms Sturgeon said: “We’ll set out exactly the prospectus for independence in an independence referendum. But the vast majority of people in Scotland want to be in the EU.”

Asked how she could know the wishes of Scots in 2016 would be the same a decade later, Ms Sturgeon said recent opinion polls showed no evidence people had changed their mind.

The Herald: Michael RussellMichael Russell

However her then constitution secretary, Michael Russell, took a different line, saying a second vote on EU membership might be the better route.

“There are circumstances in which you could say it would be desirable to have a re-endorsement of it,” he said days later.

Some in the SNP fear a double referendum could put off some of the Yes voters in 2014 who later backed Brexit.

SNP policy convener Toni Giugliano last month backed a separate EU vote.

Although confident Scots still wanted to be in the EU, he said: “We should as democrats set out an approach where we want to take Scotland with us and do that through a referendum.”

Mr Russell, now SNP President, also said a re-entry vote was “one option”.

He said: “Countries that join the EU have to show they are willing to do so. “You can do that by means of an election, in which that is the policy of the government that is elected, or by means of a referendum.

“But the people have to show that they want to join ... I wouldn’t be worried whether it was a referendum or an election. All you need to do is to show that the people want that to happen.”