Foreign policy considerations for the UK and Scotland in the event of Scotland becoming an independent country - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


On 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland will decide whether they wish to leave the UK and create an independent country. The foreign policy implications for the UK in the event of a 'Yes' vote in the referendum are potentially wide-ranging.

Initially, much would depend upon which entity, Scotland or the remainder of the UK (the RUK), would inherit particular treaty rights, obligations and membership of key international organisations. It is not in the gift of either Scottish or UK politicians to determine this unilaterally. In the absence of an agreement between the RUK and Scotland on this matter, precedent, practice and the views of the international community would influence the outcome. A process which afforded both the RUK and Scotland co-equal status (which is favoured by the Scottish Government) may appear to have the benefit of equity, but evidence suggests that in practice a number of adverse political and technical consequences could arise under the 'separation' model and it would lead to a degree of legal uncertainty that the international community would not tolerate. Witnesses were strongly of the view that precedent and principle would favour the RUK as the continuing state as had happened in previous, similar situations. As a result, the RUK would inherit the vast majority of international treaty rights and obligations and would be likely to retain its position of power in key international organisations such as the United Nations, European Union and NATO.

In contrast, Scotland would start anew at an international level, losing many of the benefits that derive from being part of the UK. Evidence suggests that the Scottish Government is largely alone in arguing that Scotland's accession would automatically take place from within the EU. It is for the EU itself to determine in accordance with its regulations whether and how Scotland would become a member. There may be pragmatic reasons for supporting some form of fast track process for Scotland's EU accession but this does not mean that it would be straightforward and Scotland may have to make trade-offs to secure the unanimous support that it would require. Although the Scottish Government maintains that an independent Scotland, negotiating membership terms from within the EU, would inherit the opt-outs and special status that the UK enjoys on the EU budget, Schengen and the Euro, it has acknowledged that it does not have legal advice to support this view. If Scotland continued to try to secure opt-outs and special treatment, it could find its path to membership more difficult.

Although the RUK would retain a strong claim on the UK's international positions of power, any compromise of its nuclear capabilities as a result of Scotland becoming independent could lead to changes in its key bilateral relationships as well as questions being raised about the RUK's role in key international political and security organisations, including the UN Security Council. There is also reason to believe that the RUK would suffer reputational damage as a result of Scotland becoming independent, although it is difficult to measure the impact this would have on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), or more generally the UK's ability to project soft power.

In the event of Scotland becoming an independent country, its voice on the international stage would be more distinct but this would not necessarily translate into a greater ability to shape the international or EU agenda to Scotland's needs, particularly in light of the external constraints that Scotland, as a small state, would face. Significant costs would also be incurred by Scotland in attempting to replicate the quality of the diplomatic and consular support currently provided by the FCO and UKTI.

Although the Scottish Government is keen to forge ahead with a different type of foreign policy, a position most clearly exemplified by its stance on nuclear weapons, evidence suggests that in many other respects, the foreign policies of Scotland and the RUK would converge. In some key areas, notably in the field of security and intelligence, there is a strong likelihood that Scotland would remain dependent upon the RUK for support, effectively constraining its foreign policy choices. While bilateral co-operation between the RUK and Scotland would be the norm on many issues, competition could overtake this aspiration in a number of key foreign policy areas, and like any bilateral relationship between sovereign states, co-operation could not be taken for granted, particularly where competing interests or priorities emerged.

More generally, in terms of the overall debate, we are concerned that seemingly unfounded assertions and initial negotiating positions are being presented as incontrovertible facts and that legal positions are being advocated without the benefit of official legal advice. There is a need for more clarity and more candour about what Scots would lose and what the Scottish Government could realistically deliver in foreign policy terms with the resources available to it. As the Edinburgh Agreement makes clear, Scots will hold their destiny in their own hands in September 2014. It is Scotland's decision to make, nobody else's. The Scottish people do, however, have a right to have the full facts, not just aspirational policies, at their disposal before they make that decision.

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Prepared 1 May 2013