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At 650 pages Scotland’s Future is not a light read. It stands as the Scottish Government’s manifesto for a yes vote in the independence referendum. The volume ranges from profoundly important questions relating to currency and Scotland’s membership of the European Union, right down to weather-forecasting and the future of the National Lottery. Though it is likely many copies of Scotland’s Future will be printed, it is unlikely many will be read from cover to cover. Its authors probably do not regret its length: by its very heft, the volume seeks to rebut claims that the consequences of independence have not been carefully thought through. This post considers the immediate constitutional consequences of a yes vote in light of Scotland’s Future. Its central argument will be that the timescale proposed by the Scottish Government for independence following a referendum is unrealistic, and may work against the interests of an independent Scotland.
Scotland’s Future sees a rapid move to independence after the vote. The referendum will be held on the 18th of September 2014, and negotiations with the UK and the European Union will start shortly after. The Scottish Government foresees that these negotiations will be completed by March 2016, 18 months later, and has picked 24th March 2016 as the day on which Scotland will become sovereign. The first elections in an independent Scotland will be held on 5th May, 2016. This is the date on which elections for the Scottish Parliament are to be held under the current devolution settlement.
So the key dates are:
18th September 2014: Referendum
7th May 2015: Likely Date of General Election in United Kingdom (including Scotland)
Early March 2016: Agreement between UK and Scotland, and between European Union and Scotland
24th March 2016: Independence for Scotland (via Acts of the UK Parliament and Scottish Parliament)
5th May 2016: Elections to Scottish Parliament
There are two groups of negotiations that Scotland will need to engage in before March 2016: with the UK and with the European Union. Each of these will be considered in turn.
Negotiations with the UK
The first question to be asked is who, exactly, will negotiate on behalf of the two territories. The answer for the Scottish side is comparatively easy. The Scottish White paper specifies that there will be a ‘negotiating team’ appointed, which will be led by the First Minister and include members from a number of political parties in Scotland and ‘public figures’ (p.72). The Scottish Parliament will scrutinize the process as it progresses – a scrutiny that may complicate matters if, or rather when, difficult concessions need to be made.
Whilst there are still questions to be answered about the composition of the Scottish negotiating team – about the manner of their selection, approval, and, indeed, how this group of previously antagonistic politicians will manage to work as a ‘team’ – these can probably be resolved relatively quickly. The United Kingdom’s representatives may prove harder to organise. The principal, but not sole, reason why this may prove tricky is the General Election that will be held in May 2015.
The United Kingdom’s 2015 General Election is likely to impact on negotiations in a number of ways. First, it makes it unlikely that much serious negotiating will be undertaken in the period between the referendum and the election. The politicians responsible for the negotiations are likely to be distracted. The Coalition Government will probably become weaker and more fragmented as the Conservative and Liberal parties seek to present distinct political identities to the public. It will become steadily more difficult for the UK Government to act in a coherent manner. The looming election will also make meaningful compromise harder: no English politician will want to be seen making concessions to Scots just before an election. But even more importantly, it will be the 2015 General Election that will determine which party, or parties, will lead the negotiations. Whilst the negotiators for the UK are likely to be drawn from across the party spectrum, negotiations will be led by a representative of the governing parties: the Prime Minister will probably assume ultimate responsibility for the process. Furthermore, just as the Scottish Parliament will review and, ultimately, approve the agreement on the Scottish side, the UK Parliament will play a similar role on the UK side. Under our existing constitution, the final decision about Scottish independence rests with the UK Parliament, which will confer sovereignty on Scotland through a statute. The agreement reached between the Scottish and UK negotiators must be one each Parliament is willing to endorse. The political complexion of the 2015 Parliament may, then, be crucial in shaping the course and outcome of negotiations.
The 2015 General Election may raise further difficulties for the course of the negotiation. Whilst it would make sense for negotiations to be held between Scotland and the remainder of the UK (that is, the UK less Scotland), no such constitutional entity exists. The UK side of the negotiations will – nominally – include Scotland. The 2015 UK Parliament will still represent, and sometimes legislate for, the whole of the UK. The 2015 UK Government will still be responsible for the well-being of the whole of the state. This will not prove a significant problem if the 2015 election produces a Government with a majority in England. Then these constitutional conundrums can be ignored: Scottish MPs will have only limited impact in the UK Parliament, and negotiations can continue as if the UK representatives acted for those parts of the Union outside of Scotland. Far more difficult, though, if after the 2015 election Scottish MPs hold the balance of power in the House of Commons. It could be that, for instance, Labour will gain a majority of seats in the Commons because of the support of Scottish Labour MPs. If so, the conduct of the UK side of the negotiation may be partly, if indirectly, determined by Scottish MPs, and the product of the negotiations may require the support of Scottish MPs to become law. And this balance of power would, of course, provide a further incentive for the UK representatives to slow down the pace of negotiations: once Scotland became independent, Scottish MPs would cease to sit in the UK Parliament. If the governing party required the support of these MPs for its majority, it would lose control of the Commons and could, potentially, either be compelled to stand aside or hold a further election.
Perhaps in response to these worries the SNP has suggested that the UK General Election be postponed for a year. This is a constitutional possibility, though a tricky one. Postponing the election would require Parliament to repeal or circumvent the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and the support of the Commons alone would not be enough as the bill could still be vetoed by the House of Lords. Parliaments have extended their own lives in the exceptional circumstances of World War I and World War II, but it is doubtful that the Scottish independence referendum – important though it is – presents a crisis of this intensity. Furthermore, even if the General Election were postponed by a year, there is no guarantee that negotiations would be concluded within this timeframe.
A second reason why the negotiations will probably take longer than the Scottish Government hopes is that the UK side lacks an incentive to speed the process along. Reading Scotland’s Future it is hard not to be struck by how many issues will need to be negotiated. Once negotiations start, Scotland will be dealing from a position of comparative weakness. The two things that Scotland will need in order for independence to be a success in the short and medium term – use of sterling as a currency and membership of the European Union – are both in the gift of the UK. The UK ought to conduct negotiations in a positive and generous manner – it is in everyone’s long-term interest that Scotland becomes a prosperous and stable country after independence – but it should also ensure that the result protects the interests of those UK citizens outside Scotland. Scotland’s Future proposes that the Bank of England will become Scotland’s lender of last resort, set the interest rates for both Scotland and the remainder of the UK, and determine monetary policy for the area. Scotland would then require a share of ownership and control over the Bank. Though Scotland’s Future suggests otherwise, it is likely that a corollary of this is that a great deal of financial regulation will also be undertaken at the British level: if the Bank of England is to act as lender of last resort, it will also want to have some control over financial regulations that mitigate the risks run by Scottish institutions. Whilst the Bank of England might be the most important institution an independent Scotland would hope to share with the rest of the UK, it is not the only body that SNP plans to retain. The Scottish white paper also suggests that around 30% of cross-border bodies will continue to provide services in Scotland (p. 363): once again, Scotland will wish to exercise a share of control over them. Though it is plainly in the interests of Scotland to retain the pound and make use of the Bank of England and these other bodies, it is harder to see why it would be in the interests of the remainder of the UK to allow this. Allowing Scotland a share in control of these bodies will reduce the control that citizens of the UK can exert over them: it is an open question why the UK should, or, more importantly, would, accept such a limitation on its sovereignty. The two key cards held by the Scottish negotiators – allowing nuclear weapons to remain in Scotland and taking a share of the national debt – will need to be judiciously played.
Scotland’s negotiating position will be further harmed by its commitment to a rapid agreement. The remainder of the UK could happily continue negotiating for years, Scotland’s Future proposes an agreement within 18 months. Deadlines can be a useful part of a negotiating process, but only if both sides agree to adhere to them. If – as is probably the case – an agreement takes longer to reach, the Scottish Parliamentary Election of 2016 presents a further challenge. It is the looming presence of this election that may explain the SNP’s desire for a hasty settlement. The 2016 election could complicate matters by returning a different government to Scotland – perhaps even a government that no longer supported independence. This might provide an incentive for the UK negotiators to delay an agreement, hoping, perhaps, for an easier negotiating partner. On the other hand, this risk may induce the Scottish team to make concessions to secure a quick agreement.
Negotiations with the European Union
In the previous section I noted that Scotland’s membership of the European Union would depend, in part, on the support of the UK. The UK – like all other members of the EU – would possess the power of veto over Scotland’s application. It is not in the UK’s long-term interests to deny Scotland membership of the EU, but its support cannot be assumed: Scotland’s membership of the European Union will be an important part of the negotiating process.
The relationship of a newly independent Scotland to the European Union is far from clear. Whilst there was some early talk that Scotland would automatically become part of the EU on independence, Scotland’s Future accepts that there will need to be an amendment of the treaties for Scotland to join. The normal processes through which a country applies for membership of the EU are found in Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. Scotland’s Future argues that this would be an inappropriate process to impose on Scotland, contending that Scotland, and its people, are already within the Union. If Article 49 were insisted upon – either by the EU institutions or by any of the Member States – it seems that Scotland would have to gain independence before applying to join. There would then be a problematic gap between independence and membership of the EU. Scotland’s Future contends that, instead of Article 49, Article 48 would be the more appropriate mode to amend the Treaties to enable Scotland’s membership.
It is worth looking at Article 48 in a little more detail. It reads, so far as is relevant:
1. The Treaties may be amended in accordance with an ordinary revision procedure. They may also be amended in accordance with simplified revision procedures.
Ordinary revision procedure
2. The Government of any Member State, the European Parliament or the Commission may submit to the Council proposals for the amendment of the Treaties. These proposals may, inter alia, serve either to increase or to reduce the competences conferred on the Union in the Treaties. These proposals shall be submitted to the European Council by the Council and the national Parliaments shall be notified.
3. If the European Council, after consulting the European Parliament and the Commission, adopts by a simple majority a decision in favour of examining the proposed amendments, the President of the European Council shall convene a Convention composed of representatives of the national Parliaments, of the Heads of State or Government of the Member States, of the European Parliament and of the Commission. The European Central Bank shall also be consulted in the case of institutional changes in the monetary area. The Convention shall examine the proposals for amendments and shall adopt by consensus a recommendation to a conference of representatives of the governments of the Member States as provided for in paragraph 4.
The European Council may decide by a simple majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, not to convene a Convention should this not be justified by the extent of the proposed amendments. In the latter case, the European Council shall define the terms of reference for a conference of representatives of the governments of the Member States.
4. A conference of representatives of the governments of the Member States shall be convened by the President of the Council for the purpose of determining by common accord the amendments to be made to the Treaties.
The amendments shall enter into force after being ratified by all the Member States in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements.
5. If, two years after the signature of a treaty amending the Treaties, four fifths of the Member States have ratified it and one or more Member States have encountered difficulties in proceeding with ratification, the matter shall be referred to the European Council.
Scotland’s Future claims that this process could be undertaken and completed within 18 months.
A number of points arise out of Article 48. The most striking point is that, on the face of it, Article 49 would appear the more appropriate mechanism for Scotland’s application. Article 49 deals with new countries wishing to join the EU, Article 48 relates to treaty amendments that alter the powers of the EU. Even if Article 48 is used, however, it is likely that the process of treaty amendment would still be a lengthy one.
First, the Scottish Government would have to secure the competence to negotiate with the EU, and perhaps other Member States, from Westminster. Second, the Scottish Government, whilst Scotland was still a part of the United Kingdom, would have to persuade the Council that it was entitled to make use of Article 48, despite Article 48 being confined to governments of Members States. Then, thirdly, preliminary negotiations would begin with the European institutions, and Member States, before a formal proposal was presented to the Council. Fourthly, the Council, in its turn, would then send the proposal to the European Council (comprising the Heads of State of the Member States and the President of the European Council) and notify the European Parliament. Fourthly, if a majority of the European Council were disposed to consider the amendments further, the proposal would be put to a Convention or directly to a Conference consisting of representatives of the governments of Member States. The former, the Convention, is used if the amendments seem of wide significance, and would require assembling representatives from a broad range of institutions to deliberate and debate the proposals. The latter, the Conference, can be engaged directly if the reforms are more limited. It is likely that Scotland’s application – which would affect the composition of the European Parliament, the Commission, and the Court – would require the summoning of a Convention. In any event, the proposal would then have to be agreed by a Conference of representatives of the governments of Member States. Fifthly, and finally, the amendments would then have to be ratified by those Member States. This would probably require a referendum in France and perhaps in some other states too. Most Member States would require that the amendments be ratified by their legislatures before becoming effective. Then – after the amendments had been ratified by all of the Member States – Scotland would be able to join the European Union.
The last paragraph made for heavy reading. I do not claim to be a specialist in European Law, but to assume that the Article 48 procedure could be completed within 18 months seems laughably optimistic: three or four years seems a more plausible timeframe. Even this makes a number of assumptions. It assumes that the difficult issues that Scotland must negotiate are quickly agreed. It assumes that other countries – in particular Spain – do not block or slow Scotland’s application. And it assumes that the EU is willing to undertake a discrete treaty amendment process to speed Scotland’s membership – and does not seek to include Scotland in the next round of EU expansion.
Whilst the timeframe of Scotland’s Future is unrealistic, it is highly likely that Scotland would be able to join the EU before 2020. It is in no-one’s interest to exclude Scotland from the Union. If, as is almost certainly the case, Scotland cannot complete the Article 48 process before the 2016 deadline, it is conceivable that some sort of international agreement could be reached between Scotland and the EU to preserve Scotland’s legal position. Perhaps Scotland would then be treated a little like Norway: possessing many of the privileges and duties of EU membership, but not able to return MEPs to the European Parliament or appoint Commissioners.
The contention of this post has been that the timescale set by Scotland’s Future is unrealistically tight, and likely to harm Scotland in a number of ways. There would be benefits to a slower process of negotiation, one which was planned to last four or five years. Aside from giving Scotland more leeway in negotiations with the UK and more time to allow the treaty amendment process to run its course in Europe, this would also permit Scotland to start the process of formulating a new constitution prior to independence. Scotland’s Future proposes that a Constitutional Convention be held sometime after the first elections in 2016, following independence. But if Scotland waits for independence to begin this process it is likely that many of the fundamental aspects of the new Scottish Constitution will have been settled – Scotland’s currency, aspects of its economic policy, and its relationship with the EU are only the most obvious of the questions that will have been resolved by this point. Other matters that a Convention might want to consider – the role of the Queen and the continuation of the Human Rights Act, for example – will already be part of Scotland’s provisional constitution, and may prove hard to shift. There is a danger that, like Israel before it, Scotland will find it easier to muddle through with this provisional constitution rather than produce a fresh constitutional document.
Finally, a benefit of running these three processes in parallel is that a further referendum could then be held prior to independence. This second referendum would stand as a ratification of the agreement with the UK (a ratification that, the Constitution Unit argues, is needed to approve the deal), as a vote to join the European Union, and, finally, as an approval of Scotland’s new constitution. Each of these three issues presents a strong argument for a second vote.
Nick Barber is University Lecturer in Constitutional Law at Oxford University, and a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.
Suggested citation: N. W. Barber, ‘After the Vote’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (14th January 2014) (available at http://ukconstitutionallaw.org).