WITH all the challenges facing the Scottish Government, first minister Humza Yousaf might have been forgiven if he put questions around joining the European Union on the back burner for a while. Yet Mr Yousaf chose to visit Brussels at the end of June and, in various recent speeches, has made sure to emphasise the SNP goal is independence in the EU, not just independence.

But there’s no great urgency here. The Scottish Government’s promised policy paper on how an independent Scotland would join the EU has been much postponed – from the end of last year to this autumn. If the SNP wants a serious debate on EU accession, surely this analysis will come out before its conference in mid-October. Time will tell.

Mr Yousaf did, during his Brussels’ trip, take a clearer, more credible stance on joining the euro than his predecessor Nicola Sturgeon. He accepted that in applying to join the EU, Scotland would have to commit to join the euro, though adding that in practice it may not happen.

The challenge here is managing this currency balancing act between EU and Scottish audiences. It’s true that once in the European Union, a member state cannot be forced to join the Euro. But to join the EU in the first place, the commitment to the Euro must be credible – and not undermined by telling the domestic audience it’s not a good idea and won’t happen, as Nicola Sturgeon did last autumn.

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Moving on to the thorny question of the Scotland-England border, if Scotland was an EU member state, Mr Yousaf has acknowledged there would have to be customs checks. But, he told his Brussels’ audience, these checks would be ‘light-touch’ and negotiated with the rest of the UK, and too with the EU. This is wishful thinking.

Scotland’s border would be part of the EU’s external border. Customs checks on goods are determined by the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement. Individual member states do not negotiate more ‘light-touch’ controls with their most immediate or important neighbours. Certainly, Scotland may be able to join the UK-Ireland common travel area, limiting or removing border checks for people. But Ireland does not face any different customs checks on goods with Britain than other member states.

And while the Windsor Framework means an open border on the island of Ireland and, yes, lighter touch customs checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, this is not on offer to a separate EU member state, whether an independent Scotland, Ireland, France or any other country.

Still, an independent Scotland would be fairly well positioned to join the European Union. As a stable democracy with a functioning market economy, and almost 47 years’ experience of being in the Union as part of the UK, Scotland would look set for a much faster accession than the current candidates from the western Balkans to Ukraine.

But there may be stumbling blocks here. Pro-EU independence supporters are keen to emphasise that there is no queue for EU accession. Candidates are assessed on their merits and while some may stall, like Turkey or the western Balkans’ candidates, others – as Croatia did – may join when they are ready.

But a quick look at the EU’s past accessions paints a more political picture. The EU regularly insists that it too must be able to absorb new members. This simple statement was used in the 1990s to delay enlargement and push through treaty changes from creating the euro to more majority voting. Only then did eight central and east European countries plus Cyprus and Malta join as a diverse group in 2004.

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For now, it’s unclear what sort of big structural changes the EU may go for as it faces bringing in Ukraine, Moldova and the candidates from the Balkans. But if Scotland does have an independence referendum in the next decade, and votes ‘yes’, then the chances are that its bid for a rapid EU accession may well become part of a group accession – with timing depending on big reforms first within the existing EU.

This need not hamper Scotland’s EU path too much – few expect an independence referendum in the next few years. But it underlines the need for Scotland’s independence debate to become more outward-looking and engaged with the realities of today’s Europe.

The questions around Scotland’s potential EU accession are not only, or even mainly, about the criteria to join or the benefits of the single market versus the costs of a border with England. Rather, the big questions are where the European Union is going, who its members will be, what are its priorities and main challenges. This is a moving target. The EU is facing new geopolitical realities, changing its security policies as it coordinates on supplying arms to Ukraine, grappling – with its own divisions – to implement its Green Deal and meet climate and biodiversity targets, and much much more.

So, there is a real challenge, and opportunity, for Scotland’s independence movement to create a deeper European debate. Those who oppose independence have little reason to engage in serious debate on independence in case that actually validates the possibility. They may make occasional social media posts about the euro or the damage of borders, or the size of the deficit. But they are not up for discussing how an independent Scotland would fit as a member state in this changing EU.

Initiating a wider discussion on the multiple challenges of an evolving Europe would take independence debates to a more serious level. And it would engage Scotland with current EU politics in a way that there is little sign of England doing. Leading this engagement might be a more useful role for Humza Yousaf’s proposed EU ‘envoy’ rather than attempting to engage Brussels’ networks in Scotland’s case for independence – a tricky, narrow and awkward task.

Humza Yousaf sounds serious on the EU. But can his government and party step up to this bigger political challenge? That’s the real question.

Kirsty Hughes is a writer and commentator on Scottish, EU & UK politics. From 2017 to 2021, founder & Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations