EU and Scotland

Lessons for Scotland from the EU’s Enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe

Published: 23 March 2020
Author: Kirsty Hughes

From the Scottish Centre on European Relations report 'An Independent Scotland in the EU: Issues for Accession', Director Kirsty Hughes, provides an overview of EU enlargement over the years, the development of the accession process, and asks, what would the process look like for an independent Scotland? 

For the EU, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1990s was a decade of both integration and enlargement. For the central and eastern European countries, these were years of hope, of a ‘return to Europe’, and too, years of sometimes frustratingly slow progress before the so-called ‘big bang’ enlargement of 2004.

With the Efta group of countries (Austria, Sweden and Finland) having joined the EU in 1995, the EU eventually expanded from 12 countries in 1989 to 25 in 2004 and 27 in 2007 (then 28 once Croatia joined in 2013).

The possibility of the EU doubling in size in terms of number of member states brought many political concerns as to whether a rapid and wide enlargement of the Union would undermine and weaken its political clout, decision-making capacity and its further integration. France, the Netherlands, Belgium and others all particularly shared these concerns, while Germany (having re-unified in 1990) and the UK were strong supporters of eastward enlargement. The UK’s support for enlargement was treated with particular suspicion since it was not a supporter of moves towards further integration. Overall, despite French reluctance – seen again more recently in its delaying of talks with Albania and North Macedonia last – it was clear that the historic changes in Europe after 1989 could not simply be ignored.

But progress towards the big 2004 enlargement was not particularly fast. There was broad agreement inside the EU that it must get its own house in order first. That included the major steps forward in the Maastricht Treaty, in 1992, including setting the EU on a path towards the euro, and greater integration in justice and home affairs. More steps towards simplification of decision-making, including more qualified majority voting, were taken in the Amsterdam (1997) and Nice (2001) Treaties, as well as bringing the border-free Schengen area into the EU treaties. There was also considerable debate at this time as to whether a core Europe, or multi-speed, variable geometry EU should be developed, not to lose all momentum through enlargement.

The Path to Accession

The central and eastern European countries that applied to join the EU in the 1990s were a diverse group. The Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia regained their independence in 1991. Slovenia too declared its independence in that year, managing to extricate itself from the disastrous conflicts as the former Yugoslavia fell apart. Czechoslovakia had a ‘velvet revolution’ in 1989 followed by a ‘velvet divorce’ in 1993. These ten countries (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia) varied in size, in economic structures, and in political challenges as they re-established democratic structures. But by 2004, eight of them (alongside Malta and Cyprus) joined the EU, with Bulgaria and Romania joining three years later in 2007.

One exception to this was the former East Germany which joined the EU through German reunification in an ad hoc and one-off process negotiated with the EU. Some suggested that, if Scotland had gone independent before Brexit happened, a process like East Germany in reverse could have been considered (i.e. a sub-state that met all EU rules, going independent and remaining in the EU, rather than a sub-state not meeting the rules merging with another state and so joining the EU). It would certainly have been interesting to see, in this scenario, whether Scotland would have had to leave then re-join the EU or managed to stay in some sort of ‘holding pen’ – but now Brexit has happened that scenario is no longer relevant.

The EU was no stranger to accession processes – the UK, Ireland and Denmark had joined in 1973, then Greece, Portugal and Spain during the 1990s. But the challenges the central and eastern European (CEE) countries faced in the democratic and economic transitions they had to make were substantial – albeit political transition in Greece, Portugal and Spain had also been reinforced by EU membership.

As the EU debated its own internal adjustments and progress, the Commission started to set out a path for the CEE ten (which was then agreed by the Council), offering association agreements (Europe agreements as they were called) and pre-accession assistance from the early 1990s. There was reluctance to open accession talks too soon, and the Copenhagen Criteria were first introduced, in 1993, to set out new benchmarks that these pre-candidate status countries should meet on their economic and political development towards being functioning market economies, democracies and being able to take on the EU’s acquis.

One overall effect of this rather slow, as it seemed at the time, path towards accession talks and membership was that talks when they finally started went rather swiftly – much of the acquis had already been taken on by the candidates. Amidst a debate as to whether there should be a ‘regatta’ or ‘big bang’ enlargement or a more sequenced set of accessions, the EU had decided to open talks in 1998 with a front-runner group of six countries: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. But rather soon afterwards, in 2000, the rest started talks i.e. Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Slovakia. And, with the exception of Bulgaria and Romania, negotiations were completed for all ten (the CEE group and Cyprus and Malta) in 2002, allowing them all to join as a group on 1st May 2004.

In hindsight, the process looks, in many ways, relatively smooth though there were disagreements along the way – including a moment in 1996 when the Commission held back some pre-accession aid to Poland for not making sufficient progress. However, after the EU had expanded, there were some concerns that, while the new member states had passed the EU’s rulebook of laws and regulation into their domestic law books, they had not always thoroughly or well implemented all the laws and regulations in practice. This led to a rather tougher approach with Bulgaria and Romania.

Some academics have also expressed concern that in moving down the EU path in the 1990s, the CEE states did not ground their newly (re-)developing democracies in their own economic policy choices, following the EU’s rules and laws instead, and trace a path from this to today’s growth of populism in some of the CEE countries.

Lessons for Scotland

If an independent Scotland applied to join the EU, it would look both similar and different to the experience of the CEE countries. Like some of them, it would be a newly independent state. However, if independence happened, for example, in the next five years, it would probably have a shorter path from independence to potential EU membership than countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia who joined the EU eleven years after independence. And, while the European Commission has experience of working with newly independent states, it would be rather unique that Scotland was still rather close to the EU’s rule book (if it was) and had already been part of an EU member state for several decades.

If Scotland, at the point of applying to join the EU, had not diverged too much from the EU’s acquis, that it mostly met while it was in the EU and in the UK, then it could expect an accession process that might, at the fastest, take four to five years (including up to two years for ratification of the accession treaty by all the EU27 in that ). Depending on timing, it could be possible that an independent Scotland might be ready to join the EU at the same time as some of the Western Balkans candidates. Candidate countries once ready and with the unanimous agreement of the European Council do not have to wait for other countries. But it is notable how down the decades, most enlargements have involved two or more countries – with just Greece and Croatia joining on their own.

An independent Scotland would certainly have to go through the same stages of being assessed as the CEE countries to see that it met the Copenhagen criteria of being a market economy and a rule-based, human rights respecting democracy. It would also be likely to agree an Association Agreement with the EU, and to get some pre-accession assistance. The CEE experience also shows that the time the actual accession talks take (two to four years for the first eight countries, plus two years for ratification) may not be any more important, in some ways, than the screening and adaptation process that happens ahead of talks. Once Scotland, as a candidate country had done its homework, accession talks lasting two to four years would be feasible (or possibly slightly less), just as it turned out to be for the CEE states.

And Scotland’s negotiators and politicians would need to be aware or learn what the CEE, and other, candidates have had to learn, sometimes painfully – that these are not really two-sided negotiations. Accession talks are a process where the EU holds all the cards and is scrutinising each candidate, in great detail, as to whether it comes up to the mark or not. It is not a moment or process to ask for several or major exceptions or opt-outs, though there may be some specific issues where some transition or exception will be considered.


Overall, the message from the CEE experience, for an independent Scotland aiming to join the EU, is by and large a positive one. A diverse range of states, facing their own major political and economic transitions (including for several becoming or regaining independence), all joined the European Union. The EU’s own political debates about the wisdom of enlargement, and the internal changes needed to accommodate accession, did not, in the end, stop the process from happening. Scotland, as the various chapters in this report show, would face its own challenges as a candidate country. But there is no reason to think that, as with the CEE countries, those challenges could and would not be overcome. 

This was originally posted as part of a report from Scottish Centre on European Relations report 'An Independent Scotland in EU: Issues for Accession'. 

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