Scotland's Decision: International Roles

Published: 8 August 2014

This week, we are highlighting the contributions of our fellows to Scotland's Decision: 16 Questions to think about for the referendum on 18 September.  Today’s topic is the international role an independent Scotland might have.The book is available as a free download.

Our experts look at three questions on the international dimensions of the independence debate:

Juliet Kaarbo and Daniel Kenealy ask what kind of foreign policy an independent Scotland would have and how much influence it could exert in the international system. They see a mix of continuity and change in the Scottish Government’s proposals:

“Continuity would be provided by on-going membership in a variety of international organisations, perhaps most prominent amongst them NATO and the EU. But there would also be the possibility of change as an independent Scotland would be free to pursue a set of values and interests somewhat distinct from those of the UK.”

They see that change in “a highly aspirational policy”, with a Scottish Government vision of Scotland as a “champion for international justice and peace” and “a good global citizen with a ‘do no harm’ principle, especially to developing countries”.

By contrast, “the No side sees Scotland stronger as a part of the UK than it would be on its own. The argument is captured in the phrase ‘A strong voice in the world’  …Their messages stress, in terms of sheer numbers and expenditure, how much larger the UK diplomatic service, the UK economy, the UK armed forces, and the UK intelligence services, are in comparison to hypothetical independent Scottish counterparts.”

Kaarbo and Kenealy make the point that these are views which “are talking past each other with No speaking the language of big states and power politics, and Yes speaking the language of small states punching above their weight.”

They also ask whether small states can indeed ‘punch above their weight’, finding:

“..small states can carve out niche roles, champion specific issues, and broker agreements, as they often enjoy more credibility and neutrality than larger states, because of their small size … Small states can use their power, and particularly their ‘soft’ power of persuasion and example-setting, in smart ways to advance their interests and exert influence.”

Colin Fleming echoes a number of these themes in his discussion of how an independent Scotland would defend itself:

“While the UK’s strategic effort remains global in scope, Scotland’s focus would be on the defence of its territorial integrity as well as taking on a regional defence role in northern Europe. In contrast to the current strategic posture of the UK, with its history as a major international power, the Scottish Government’s defence proposals reflect those of a small state.”

The two sides, in other words, are again talking past each other. But they are connected by the overlapping debates about Trident and NATO membership. The Scottish Government would want Scotland in NATO following a Yes vote, but is also committed to the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland. So: “Because NATO is a nuclear alliance it has been argued that Scotland’s membership would be denied on the grounds of its anti-nuclear stance.”

So would Scotland’s proposed NATO membership be vetoed? Fleming notes that:

“…being anti-nuclear is not in itself a barrier to Scottish membership. The Scottish Government has signalled that it will sign up to NATO’s Strategic Concept which rests on it being a nuclear alliance. Refusing to sign would almost certainly prevent Scotland’s membership. However, by accepting NATO is a nuclear club the main barrier to membership is removed.”

But he adds a qualification:

“This does not mean that Scotland would gain entry immediately. The stance on the removal of Trident is crucial and NATO will be wary of permitting Scottish membership if the timetable for the removal of Trident forced the rest of the UK into nuclear disarmament against its wishes.”

This suggests flexibility on timetable would be needed. Fleming notes “that the Scottish Government has not provided a set timeline for removal of Trident … and will enter into negotiation with the UK Government on the issue”. He cites UK Government views that ‘around a decade’ would be needed and says:

“This seems appropriate and would allow London time to find suitable alternative facilities for Trident if it wished to maintain its current nuclear capability.”

Michael Keating looks at what is now a long-running debate on Scottish EU membership post a Yes vote. The debate has moved on:

“At the start of the current independence debate, positions were polarised. Independence supporters argued that Scotland would remain in the European Union (EU) more or less automatically, while their opponents suggested that it would be out.”

The Scottish Government now accepts that it would have to apply for membership, and many on the No side now “accept that Scotland could join the EU but that it would have to adopt the euro and enter Schengen and would lose the current UK opt-outs.”  So the debate is now more about the terms of membership than whether membership itself would be possible.

On this Keating notes:

“Keeping Scotland in the EU … might be complicated but pales beside the challenges of disentangling Scotland to get it out. Forcing it out of the single market, only to allow it back in again, is the sort of challenge member states can really do without.”

He also notes that “No country has ever been forced into the euro against its will,” and: “Nor is it likely that Scotland would be forced into Schengen, especially as the UK Government would have a strong interest in keeping an open border. This makes threats by UK ministers that there could be border posts between England and Scotland questionable; the only authority that might plausibly impose such posts is the UK Government itself.”

If Scotland were an independent member, Keating makes some of the points noted by Kaarbo and Kenealy about small states:

“We know that small states in the EU have less influence than larger ones, but they can be effective if they are well organised and know their way around the European institutions, and if they have a reputation as constructive players and good Europeans … As a small state it could not hope to behave like the UK does if it wanted to retain influence.”

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