A week is a long time in politics they say. Things can change very quickly – just ask Alex Salmond about that.
Not so long ago he was signing an agreement with David Cameron that will give him the power to call a referendum on Scottish independence. But since then he has seen a split in his party on NATO membership over which two of his MSP have since resigned from the SNP. And this week he was roundly condemned as a liar over the issue of legal advice on a theoretical independent Scotland’s relationship with the EU.
In short, here’s how things unravelled for the SNP. On Tuesday Nicola Sturgeon made a statement to the Scottish Parliament on the responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation on all matters referendum. A storm erupted when she said that legal advice would now be sought on the issue of the future relationship with the EU.
The reason for the storm? Alex Salmond has repeatedly stated that advice had already been sought. He had refused to reveal its content, citing convention that legal advice given to ministers should remain confidential. Even when the Information Commissioner ruled that the public interest made this an exceptional case and that he should reveal all, the First Minister went to court to challenge the ruling.
So what could it mean when the Deputy First Minister told MSPs that there had never actually been any legal advice in the first place? Paul Martin MSP led the Labour attack, saying, “It appears the First Minister is a liar and used taxpayers’ money to try to cover up his lies.”
The heart of the matter relates to an interview with Andrew Neil in which he asked Alex Salmond, “Have you sought advice from your own Scottish law officers on this matter?” Salmond replied, “We have, yes, in terms of the debate.” He then stressed that he could not “reveal the legal advice of law officers” but, citing Government documents which claim an independent Scotland would automatically be a member of the EU, added: “Everything we publish is consistent with the legal advice we receive.”
Now any reasonable person who saw the interview, the key part of which was shown on every news programme this week, could only come to one conclusion. Legal advice was sought and received. But that’s not what Nicola Sturgeon was now saying.
The First Minister was forced to make a statement to the Scottish Parliament to explain himself. He claimed that he had been given generic legal advice, but that what was now sought was specific advice in light of the agreement with David Cameron. Quite what the mechanics of the referendum have to do with possible EU membership is not clear. And Salmond also claimed that he could not even reveal whether specific advice had been sought without permission.
So the First Minister’s argument seems to be that the court case was to avoid revealing that there was nothing at all to reveal. What a good use of public money that was then.
Is this all just a misunderstanding? A confusion of terms? Perhaps. But the impression that is left is of a First Minister who at best was playing with terminology to suit his own ends and at worst was lying.
And in a new twist this weekend a story in the Independent suggests that Salmond’s legal advisors told him something very different from his repeated claim that an independent Scotland would automatically be an EU member. The story cites senior legal advisors telling Salmond that “an independent Scotland’s future inside the European Union was not automatic and was a “policy objective” that required “detailed negotiations””.
No wonder the First Minister wanted the whole think kept quiet.
It is not the first time that the SNP have been caught out over making assertions based on nothing and with no evidence to back them up. In a TV debate Nicola Sturgeon argued that letting the Bank of England set interest rates for a theoretical independent Scotland would not be a problem, as Scotland would be represented on the key Monetary Policy Committee. It later emerged that this had never been discussed with, let alone agreed by, the Bank.
But where does all of this leave us in relation to the core issue of whether an independent Scotland would actually be a member of the EU?
Well, the legal position is confused. There are several possible outcomes, and they depend on exactly how Scottish independence would be viewed in terms of international law. There is simply no precedent for a devolved part of an EU Member State becoming independent and having to determine its membership of the EU as a new state. And there is nothing in the various EU Treaties that cover the situation. The Treaty of Lisbon does now provide for Member States to leave the EU if they want to – but that’s not the same as part of a Member State becoming independent.
In general, under international law when a state breaks up any treaty obligations and membership of international organisations pass to the continuing state – if it is possible to discern one. So one possibility is that the rest of the UK (whatever it might call itself) would be seen as the continuing state with the newly independent Scotland seen as a brand new state.
There is a logic to this position when you look at th relative populations – and in terms of the EU it would mean that Scotland would not automatically become an EU member. It could of course apply to join. But all new EU members are expected to become part of the Euro, and that is a key issue.
There are two other possible interpretations of Scottish independence under international law.
If independence was to be viewed as the separation of one state into two, rather than as one part of a state leaving, then it could be argued that both retain treaty obligations including EU membership. This is the SNP position.
But if it is argued that the UK is dissolved and two new states created, then neither would retain the obligations of the current state. This was what happened when Czechoslovakia disappeared to be replaced by two new states, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
In reality any EU decision would be a political one as much as a legal one. And with several Member States having regions within them that have independence movements it would be a very hot potato. Reports from Spain in particular suggest that they would oppose Scottish membership in order to discourage the Catalan nationalists from arguing that a precedent would be established.
This is an issue that the EU has not faced before. But perhaps the world’s newest country, South Sudan, can give us some indication as to what might happen. In 2011 a referendum in South Sudan saw 98.83% voting in favour of independence.
This created the new Republic of South Sudan. It did not inherit any treaty obligations and international memberships, which remained with the continuing state of Sudan. The republic of South Sudan was admitted to the UN after a vote and has since sought to join other world bodies.
While this is not exactly the same situation as a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum would create, there are similarities. And the outcome here must surely give a clue as to how an independent Scotland would be viewed.
So would a newly independent Scotland have to apply for EU membership?
Well, it would seem likely that the answer is yes, although that cannot be said to be a definite. The issue will continue to be debated over the next couple of years, and I’m sure that both sides will, in time, be able to cite learned legal opinions that back their views.
How crucial will this be in the ongoing referendum discussion? That remains to be seen. But what is clear is that Alex Salmond’s reputation has taken a massive hit over this issue.