Scotland will not be dragged out of the European Union without a fight.
Nearly two-thirds of Scottish voters opted to remain in the EU, as 51.9 percent of Britons voted in June to exit the bloc during the United Kingdom’s historic referendum, popularly referred to as “Brexit.”
The British government is finalizing preparations to leave the union in March 2019. But Brexit’s unprecedented nature yields a path of uncertainty for Europe and, in particular, the U.K., which is composed of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
As it edges closer to the inevitable unknown, Britain is now grappling with internal chaos that could yield potentially irreversible consequences: Dismayed by the Brexit referendum result, Scotland is once again considering its options to abandon the British union.
The country’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is currently seeking support from the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should leave the U.K. before it withdraws from the EU.
The Case For Scottish Independence
Scotland stands at a “hugely important crossroads,” Sturgeon said during an impassioned speech this month.
“We didn’t choose to be in this position, [and] in common with most people across the country, I wish that we weren’t in this position,” she said. “But we are, and the stakes are high.”
Westminster, London, home of the British parliament, has been entirely unwilling to compromise in consideration of Scottish interests in Brexit dealings, she said.
“I will now take the steps necessary to make sure that Scotland will have a choice at the end of this process,” she said. “A choice of whether to follow the U.K. to a hard Brexit, or to become an independent country able to secure a real partnership of equals with the rest of the U.K. and our own relationship with Europe.”
Section 30 of the 1998 Scotland Act allows Sturgeon to seek authority from Westminster to legislate for a referendum on Scotland’s independence, which would first require approval from Holyrood, Edinburgh, where the Scottish parliament is located.
The two-day debate process began Tuesday, but was suspended on Wednesday following reports of a terrorist attack outside British Parliament buildings in London. Holyrood is now set to vote for or against a referendum on March 28, one day before Westminster is due to officially trigger divorce proceedings from the EU.
Sturgeon has said she believes an independence plebiscite should be held in late 2018 or early 2019, once the terms of Brexit are clear and voters can make an “informed choice,” but “before it’s too late for Scotland to choose a different path.”
A BMG Research poll published in Scotland’s The Herald newspaper this month shows 39 percent of Scots want a second independence vote before Brexit occurs, and 49 percent are against the proposed referendum.
BMG research director Michael Turner said support for independence has gradually increased from earlier polls, and that it is “foreseeable” for this trend to continue as details of the Brexit deal emerge.
If Westminster’s fixation on a “hard Brexit” continues, the trend seen in this poll is only set to continue once U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 (the start of the formal two-year process of leaving the EU) on March 29, a spokesperson from Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party told The Herald.
SNP Deputy Leader Angus Robertson said his party’s main goal is to ensure Scotland remains a member of the European single market, which refers to the EU as one territory without internal borders. As such, he vowed to continue pressuring Britain to prioritize this concern in its ongoing Brexit negotiations.
“There may only be days, may only be weeks, but where all of our efforts are currently focused is trying to convince the U.K. government to come to a compromise agreement protecting Scotland’s place in Europe,” he told The Guardian. “If the U.K. government genuinely believes in a United Kingdom, [it must] take the needs, interests [and] concerns of the different parts of the U.K. seriously.”
Sturgeon launched an online fundraiser to support referendum efforts, which has raised over £370,000 of its £1 million target.
Déjà Vu: IndyRef2
This is the second time in three years that Scotland has contemplated secession. Holyrood held what the SNP called a “once in a generation” independence referendum at the time, referred to as “IndyRef” ― a point repeatedly raised by British leaders now advocating against a second vote.
Fifty-five percent of Scottish voters rejected independence in a 2014 plebiscite with one of the highest turnouts in U.K. history. IndyRef pro-independence backers, including Alex Salmon, who was the Scottish first minister at the time, campaigned with a desire to separate from Britain and then rejoin the EU as an independent nation.
David Cameron, who was the British prime minister at the time, celebrated Scotland’s referendum result as a victory for the U.K.’s sustained unity.
“Now the debate has been settled for a generation,” Cameron said. “So there can be no disputes, no re-runs; we have heard the will of the Scottish people.”
But Sturgeon maintains the new circumstances illustrate the need for a new vote.
“The Scottish government’s mandate for offering this choice is beyond doubt,” she said. The first minister cited her party’s 2016 manifesto, which outlines Holyrood’s right to hold another referendum “if there is a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU” against its will. The government has already drafted a bill for a second vote.
Members of the Scottish Green Party have confirmed they would back Sturgeon’s referendum bid, but the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Labour Party have vowed to vote against it. With her party’s votes, the first minister stands to win a majority of 69 to 59.
May: ‘Now Is Not The Time’
The British prime minister, who was initially opposed to a Brexit but is now tasked with leading the departure, snapped back at Sturgeon for “playing politics” with the future of Scotland and the U.K. at large.
The SNP’s “tunnel vision” is deeply regrettable, and “sets Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division,” said a visibly frustrated May.
“Now is not the time” for a second referendum on Scottish independence, the prime minister later added, further stressing the need for solidarity across the U.K. “We should be working together, not pulling apart.”
May neglected to explicitly confirm whether or not she would actively block the proposed plebiscite indefinitely, which is within her government’s power. But she asserted it would be “unfair” to hold any such vote before Brexit takes effect.
Discussion of Scottish independence at this time only hinders the U.K.’s ability to negotiate the best possible Brexit deal with the EU, and leaves Scots facing a risky and uncertain future, she argued. If a referendum is to be held, she continued, it should occur after the British government has completed the departure from the EU.
Any interference by Westminster in Scotland’s democratic processes would be “totally unacceptable,” the SNP’s Robertson argued.
“Scotland’s referendum is going to happen, and no U.K. prime minister should dare to stand in the way of Scottish democracy,” he warned. “Let there be no doubt ― Scotland will have its referendum, and the people of this country will have their choice. They will not be denied their say.”
As tensions rise, a petition advocating against a second referendum has received more than 203,000 signatures, far exceeding the minimum number for the British Parliament to respond and consider the subject for debate.
EU Membership Not Automatic
The French and Spanish governments are against the EU negotiating any special membership for an independent Scotland, insisting that it would not automatically be able to rejoin the bloc.
Scotland “would have to queue, meet the requirements for entry, hold negotiations and the result would be that these negotiations would take place,” Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said at a press conference shortly after Sturgeon announced she would make a bid for another referendum.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said in June that he wanted to be “very clear ― Scotland does not have the competence” to negotiate with the EU. “Spain opposes any negotiation by anyone other than the government of United Kingdom,” he added. “If the United Kingdom leaves ... Scotland leaves.”
As an EU member, Spain has the power to veto Scotland’s membership, which could be an appealing option for Spanish leaders attempting to quell separatist aspirations in Catalonia and the Basque country.
When the SNP’s Salmond vied for his country’s independence ahead of the first referendum, the EU warned that an independent Scotland would have to reapply for membership and renegotiate the terms in accordance with EU laws.
“If a country becomes independent, it is a new state and has to negotiate with the European Union,” said Jose Manuel Barroso, then-president of the European Commission, the institution that serves as the EU’s executive arm.
It is also possible that Scottish Parliament would not commit to membership in the bloc, as several SNP members were in favor of Brexit.
While much remains unknown, one thing is certain: As the U.K. prepares to venture beyond the EU, Scotland will not go quietly.
This article has been updated to reflect that the debate process has been suspended.