For the first time since 2004, the European Union is heading towards another “big bang” enlargement. On Wednesday, the European Commission proposed opening accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. It also suggested Georgia be given candidate country status and outlined tough political conditions that would let talks open with Bosnia and Herzegovina too.

EU leaders will take the final decisions at their December summit. But it looks as if, together with the other five western Balkan candidates, the EU could expand to 36 member states in the coming years.

Seven years after the Brexit vote, the UK is on the sidelines, with no influence on this big strategic push by Brussels. And those who aspire to Scottish independence must wonder whether Scotland could not have been part of this big EU expansion if the politics had only turned out differently. Who, on the independence side, would have imagined back in 2016 that Albania is likely to join the EU club before an independent Scotland?

READ MORE: Lockdown: The 'cure' may have been worse than Covid

Nothing, though, is set in stone. Over the last two decades, the EU turned rather sour on enlargement. It let Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia in but froze talks with Turkey. And it left the western Balkans candidates to stumble slowly on in their negotiations, with strong EU political support clearly lacking.

In August, European Council president, Charles Michel, underlined the new, positive enlargement outlook, saying it should happen by 2030. That raised some eyebrows. And it looks optimistic – at least for the whole diverse, range of nine aspiring candidates.

Still, there’s no doubting, for now, the EU’s renewed enlargement dynamic. And, in parallel, tricky debates have started about EU internal reform to cope with such a big expansion. Agreement on proposals such as moving to majority voting in sensitive areas like tax and foreign policy will not be easy.

Yet, these debates are not new. Insistence that the EU must be able to absorb new member states dates back 30 years to the so-called Copenhagen Criteria. These determine when countries may get to be candidates and to start talks. But they also state the EU must be able to absorb new members – and so can provide excuses for delay for member states less keen on a bigger EU.

All these issues were in play in the 1990s too – costs, internal reform, internal politics, readiness of candidates. And, to some extent, they slowed the process down. But, in the end, the succession of political commitments the EU made to countries including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and the candidates’ own preparations in adopting EU laws, created facts on the ground that drove the process to a successful conclusion.

READ MORE: Thumper, Bambi and Miss Moneypenny reveal dubious Tory shenanigans

Will this dynamic be similar in the coming years for Ukraine and the other candidates? Perhaps. The EU has moved remarkably fast on Ukraine’s membership bid. The politics of not doing so, in the face of Russia’s war on Ukraine, were and remain untenable. But we don’t know how or when the war will come to an end (or remain, eventually, in some sort of frozen state). And the reconstruction needs for Ukraine will be immense.

If the EU retains its current political commitment to Ukraine, these potential barriers will, probably, not be insuperable. But the Union has been so reluctant, for so long, towards the western Balkans, that it’s reasonable to ask whether today’s new dynamism will last the course for them.

And can Scotland learn any lessons through watching these accession politics from the outside? There are three main ones.

Firstly, that enlargement sometimes speeds up and moves quickly up the EU’s priority list; and sometimes, it does the opposite, stalling indefinitely.

Secondly, that while each candidate is assessed on its merits, sometimes – as in the 1990s and, probably, as now – a group of candidates end up moving forward together. Of course, it’s possible that Ukraine and just a few others might join together, rather than all nine states currently on the EU’s accession books.

But we’re unlikely to see each of the nine joining in a different year. It would be too cumbersome. That’s why, in the end, in 2004, eight central and eastern European countries, and Malta and Cyprus, all joined together.

Thirdly, EU enlargement is both highly political and technical. It always has been and always will be. So, an independent Scotland would have to manage both. It would have to align to EU laws and policies once again. And it would have to manage its relationship to Brussels and the EU member states, with their different interests and takes on accession, as intelligently as possible.

Meeting criteria, implementing laws, showing you are ready for EU accession, creates important facts on the ground. That won’t necessarily overcome any major political roadblocks. But it will make delay less likely.

For now, the EU is heading towards having 36 member states by the mid-2030s. Could Scotland choose independence and apply to join the EU in time to catch up with, at least, any laggards in this process? It’s unlikely but not impossible. But if Ukraine and other frontrunners did join the EU by 2030, it’s hard to see Scotland back in the EU by then.

Take an optimistic scenario. If there was an independence referendum in 2026, that was won by the yes side, then what does the EU accession timescale look like?

If UK and Scotland divorce talks were rapid, they could result in a new Scottish state in existence in, say, 2028 or 2029. An independent Scotland could then apply to join the EU. The fastest accession could reasonably happen is four to five years – to apply, negotiate and ratify treaties.

In 2033, some stragglers amongst the EU’s current nine candidates might still be waiting to join. But, quite likely, an independent Scotland would be behind this current accession curve.

After Brexit, some said Scotland could become the EU’s 28th state. Now, perhaps, the EU aspiration must be, one day, to join the EU as its 37th member state.