Covid has not changed Scotland's position in relation to applying for membership of the EU. If Scotland were to choose independence through a constitutionally and legally valid process, then it would be eligible to apply to join the EU.
Certainly, UK and Scottish political dynamics may well change post-Covid, through the economic recession and after the Holyrood elections in May 2021. But the EU’s concerns about an agreed process will not disappear.
And the accession steps to go through have not altered. After an application, the Commission would assess whether and how far Scotland meets the so-called ‘Copenhagen criteria’ – on democracy, a functioning market economy and ability to take on the EU’s laws – and it would then be up to the European Council to decide at unanimity whether to open talks.
Tricky issues such as meeting the EU’s fiscal criteria on debt and deficit will not have gone away. Certainly, in the post-Corona world, EU member states will have, to varying extents, substantially increased their debt to GDP ratios. But this is not expected to translate into any change in the treaty criteria on debt and deficit – even if it might mean more tolerance for higher debt levels as long as these were on a sustained downwards path. And the EU may be tougher on those applying to join than those who are already member states. After all, in the difficult economic times ahead, the EU will not want to bring in too fast any accession country whose economic situation does not look fairly robust. Nonetheless, if Scotland had not diverged too far from EU laws, and was not in an economically unstable state, then a 4-5 year accession time horizon is still feasible (as has been argued in a number of Scottish Centre on European Relations’ reports).
Debates over an independent Scotland’s border with the rest of the UK will recur too. Wherever the UK government’s crass Brexit rhetoric takes the EU-UK talks, the prospect, even with a deal, is one of a hard Brexit with potentially both tariff and non-tariff barriers to deal with at the UK-EU border – and so, too, at any future Scotland-rUK border.
For now, despite its rhetoric, the UK appears to be back to attempted cherry-picking, refusing serious negotiations to agree a ‘level-playing field’ on labour, environmental, state aid and climate regulations (despite this being in the agreed Political Declaration last autumn), while also wanting privileged access for services and to security databases and an ad hoc set of governance arrangements. At the same time, the UK is being dragged towards an acknowledgement that it did indeed sign up to customs and regulatory checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. If there is a deal, it will be one where there is some form of level-playing field, but it will also be one that means bureaucracy, barriers and delays at borders and so substantial economic costs. An external EU border between Scotland and England would face the same barriers.
The UK government is also insisting it wants no extension to the current transition period – which it should ask for by the end of June, if the UK is not to leave, deal or no deal, the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of this year. But there have been suggestions – including from Raoul Ruparel, a former adviser to Theresa May – that there could be a ‘preparation’ period assuming a deal was done this autumn, that would give more time in 2021 before the deal was implemented. Whether Boris Johnson’s government could go this way is unclear. But, if it did, that timing could be interesting given the Scottish parliament elections in May 2021. A clear victory for the SNP then – on a platform of independence in the EU – while the UK had not yet left the EU’s single market, could set up some interesting political debates around timing of an independence referendum and keeping Scotland as close as possible to EU legislation.