Remember that old joke about Brits happily forming an orderly queue of one?
Over the past few days I have been thinking about queues, but without any laughter. I had posted an article in which the Head of the European Commission in the UK confirmed that Jean-Claude Juncker had ruled out any further “enlargements” (Euro speak for new members), of the EU before 2020. Boldly the official went on to say:
“There are a number of official candidate countries [which] are still quite some way away from meeting the criteria for membership. And obviously were Scotland to become independent they would join that list.”
This was a major statement for the Commission, so it was no surprise that the official was back on the airwaves the following day to tidy up her earlier intervention. She said there was “no reason why [Scotland] would not be accepted into the normal accession process”, and “[Scotland] would probably still have on its statute books a fair amount of European rules, which would mean it was starting from a point different from other applicant countries, who normally have to go through the entire process of aligning their rules with European rules.”
She got the genie back in the bottle. Almost.
There are three take-homes from what the official said.
1. An independent Scotland would have to apply for EU membership from outside using the “normal accession process”.
2. Any membership application would have to wait until 2020.
3. If Scotland was still compliant with EU law, it could expect to begin negotiations from a more advanced starting point than others.
Given these importance of these statements, it came as a surprise that the anger directed at me online focused on something quite trivial – namely whether an applicant nation being on a “list” was like being in a “queue”. My crime? The headline of the article I posted referred to a “queue”.
I have been trying to work out the best way of describing the holding pen for members seeking EU membership. The best I can come up with is that it is like the queue outside a nightclub. It doesn’t really matter when you joined the queue if you are pretty sure the bouncers will let you in – and if you’re not, they won’t.
Three countries are currently negotiating membership (Turkey, Montenegro, and Serbia), two have had their application accepted but negotiations are yet to begin (Macedonia and Albania), and Bosnia-and-Herzegovina has applied to join but has not yet been granted candidate status. Turkey has been there for a long time, with three states (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, Croatia in 2013) entering the club whilst Turkey shuffled its feet outside. Macedonia has been outside for quite a while too, trying to catch the bouncer’s eye. Kosovo (as a result of Spanish intervention) wasn’t even allowed to join the queue.
Are these would-be EU members really in a queue? In the UK, a queue is an orderly progression to the front of the line. However, no one could claim that EU applicants make an orderly progress.
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In the case of Macedonia, Greece objected to the very name Macedonia. So despite the fact that Macedonia lodged its application in 2004 it is still on the outside looking in. Spain objected (along with four other EU states) to Kosovo’s declared independence, putting paid to its application.
The simple fact for those countries currently in an EU membership holding pattern is that your chances rarely have anything to do with you, but everything to do with the domestic affairs of someone else. You might be standing at the bar, a crisp 50 pound note in your hand, but if the barman has been told not to serve you, then you are going to get thirsty.
It is true that Scotland, as part of the UK, is currently compliant with EU law.
However, would Scotland really want to commit to all aspects of EU Law during the membership negotiations? Accepting Fisheries Law would bring its fishermen back into the Common Fisheries Policy. Not sure that would be popular in Alex Salmond’s back yard of Banff and Buchan (I think it is fair to say at least 95 percent of fishermen voted to leave the EU last June).
Scotland would also face a titanic struggle to retain the opt-outs currently enjoyed by the UK: the share of the UK rebate negotiated by the British Prime Minister in 1984, the VAT exemptions, not taking the Euro as currency etc. No state, which has joined the EU in the past 30 years, has anything like the deal the UK currently has.
Two weeks ago, Esteban Pons, leader of the largest group of Spanish MEPs, told Scotland’s Minister for External Affairs Fiona Hyslop:
“If once the UK leaves, and Scotland decides to leave the UK, then you can join the queue after Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Turkey to join the EU.”
Pons’ comments are important because they indicate the unease of the Spanish government and the risk that Scotland’s membership ambitions could be halted as a result of internal Spanish issues”.
When I pointed this out on social media, there was uproar. Apparently, Pons didn’t know what he was talking about, didn’t speak for Spain, was a Tory (!), and so on.
However you describe the process of joining the EU – list, queue, nightclub door – the truth is that the decision on whether you get in rests in the hands of someone else. In an Independent Scotland’s case, that would be 27 pairs of hands.
Until these matters are resolved Scotland will remain on the outside, forming an orderly queue of one.
Ian Duncan is an MEP and a member of the European Parliaments’s Environment, Public Health and Food Committee.