As the clock on Big Ben chimed midnight, the transition period between the European Union and the United Kingdom had officially ended. Many in England had celebrated the country’s long planned and hard-fought departure from the EU’s embrace, yet across the borders in Scotland the celebrations were markedly muted. While in the 2016 referendum English voters were mostly for independence, Scotland had overwhelmingly voted to stay within the EU. Nigel Farage, who is often regarded as the main driving force behind the successful Brexit campaign, celebrated Britain’s regained independence with a social media post, writing “this is a big moment for our country, a giant leap forward. Time to raise a glass.” In contrast, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, bid farewell to a bleak 2020 that had seen Scotland’s healthcare and economy devastated by the coronavirus epidemic on the one hand, and its departure from the EU along with the rest of the UK on the other. Although the coronavirus is still spreading in Scotland at an alarming rate, just as it does in the rest of the UK, in her remarks, she had set the stage in rectifying the other grievance by promising to rejoin the EU in the future.
“Scotland will be back soon, Europe. Keep the light on,” tweeted Sturgeon on Jan. 1. “As independent Ireland takes up her seat on the UN Security Council today, not (yet) independent Scotland is taken out of the EU against our will. Time to put ourselves in the driving seat of our own future, Scotland #indyref2,” wrote the Scottish leader. NIgel Farage is largely seen as one of the primary driving forces behind Brexit. Although Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party are clearly hoping for a chance to rejoin the European Union, they are facing a number of major obstacles before their hopes could meet reality. The first and most obvious is that they would have to gain independence from the rest of the UK first, which is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. In the 2014 independence referendum, only 44.75 percent of Scots have voted for independence, which is significantly less than pro-independence campaigners had predicted. The dominance of the SNP in the past few years of a devolved Scotland has not brought about a major breakthrough that Scottish nationalists had hoped for. The country’s economy is still highly interwoven with the UK, and according to some figures, the Westminster government is still subsidizing Scotland’s enormous public spending. According to a UK government website , “Tax revenue generated in Scotland amounts to about £66 billion, including North Sea oil revenue, but it benefits from about £81 billion in public spending. That means Scotland benefits from £15 billion more than it puts in.” The North Sea oil production, which would make up a significant part of an independent Scotland’s tax revenues, is fast becoming economically unsustainable, and according to analysts , the pandemic will only accelerate the demise of the industry. Scotland, with few other natural resources, would be heavily reliant on its tourism industry, but the past year had shown how vulnerable that can become to global events. The other major obstacle, should Scotland vote to leave the UK, is the willingness of the EU to expand north of the English border.
Sturgeon and her circle of politicians count heavily on the historic ties between Scotland and France to find favors within the European club, however, these sentiments do not seem to be fully reciprocated. A quick and unconditional EU membership will only remain a wishful thinking until the Scottish nationalists can find a convincing answer to the economic issue, which, in turn, would be decisively impacted by their relationship and economic ties with the remainder of the UK. French President Emmanuel Macron may refuse to cross England and support Scotland’s attempts to join the EU. Worryingly for Sturgeon, a recent study had shown that there is no appetite from the side of the Macron government to play the Scotland card in order to put pressure on London. According to the Scottish Centre for European Relations, “France sees the UK, despite Brexit, as an important ally which means the potential fragmentation of the UK is unwelcome”. Spain would equally refrain from showing any support for Scottish hopes of joining the EU as an independent nation, as it struggles with its own separatist movements, most notably the one in Catalonia. In a recent article Nicola Sturgeon writes about a “…threat Brexit poses to the internationalist, welcoming European ethos held by so many people in Scotland.” It is clear that she views the EU through somewhat idealistic glasses as a wholly benign institution representing “endeavor and solidarity” and expresses her hopes that Scotland can join it “as an equal partner”. It is perhaps true that the Scottish political spectrum is more in tune with European ideological trends than some of the current Central-Eastern European member states. Yet, it is precisely the example of these countries that should make Scottish nationalists consider as whether a small, economically less developed country that prides itself in its national character and independent spirit, would be treated as an equal partner in a European Union edging closer to a federalist ethos.
In Brussels, where national identities are increasingly looked at as a hindrance to unity and a threat to its central ruling class, a strongly nationalist Scotland could be hard to stomach. Most Scottish voters, whether pro or anti-independence, will continue to offer their silent support for Sturgeon’s nationalist posturing as a means of putting pressure on Westminster. It remains an effective tool for reminding the rest of the UK of their national and cultural identity, which has never been in doubt, regardless of their political preferences. Ultimately though, whether the post-Brexit UK will do well politically and economically will have a decisive role in how the Scottish question evolves in the future. This is certainly recognized by the current Boris Johnson government, and will be one of the main driving forces for any future Westminster government’s strategy in handling the UK’s territorial integrity.