On October 13th Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced plans for a consultation on a second Scottish independence referendum bill. The consultation marks the first step in the long process of allowing the referendum to go to a vote. But irrespective of whether the country succeeds in its second attempt to pursue independence from the United Kingdom, it faces extensive negotiations with the United Kingdom (UK) in light of its decision to exit the European Union (EU).
Although a similar referendum for Scottish independence was rejected by a 5% margin in September of 2014, the country has experienced renewed calls for a revote in response to the Brexit decision last June. Many Scots were in favor of staying within the EU compared to other regions of the UK, with 62% voting to remain compared to a 46% in England. Having historically been tied to the UK economy, many Scots see EU membership as improved economic independence and greater access to world markets. Meanwhile, many Brits see the EU as a burdensome regulatory body whose relaxed policies on immigration, as well as other issues, undermine national sovereignty and pose a security threat. Therefore, immediately after it was announced the United Kingdom had voted to leave, Sturgeon announced a second referendum was highly likely.
However, now that plans are underway it in no way guarantees success or an easy breakup. Plans for a consultation on the referendum bill are only the first step in its passage. There are many other factors at play and steps that must be taken before the referendum is voted on, including parliamentary approval, a successful consultation, and setting a date among others.
The timeline is also highly dependent on how Brexit negotiations play out. When Sturgeon announced her intentions, she made clear that Scotland had the right to renegotiate its own membership with the EU if it felt the UK did not have its best interests at heart. However, with Brexit talks just starting, it is hard to predict how they will reflect Scotland’s wishes. It is possible, though unlikely, that the Brexit negotiations could result in a unique UK relationship that meets many of Scotland’s conditions. If not, the bill would face a hurried timeline under pressure to produce a vote before Brexit is finalized. Even then, it will likely take a year before the referendum goes to a vote.
On the chance that the referendum is unsuccessful, there are still time consuming negotiations in Scotland’s future. At the Scottish National Party (SNP)’s conference last week, the First Minister also announced that her government is working on proposals to maintain as much of Scotland’s current relationship with the EU as possible within the United Kingdom framework. This relationship may look similar to Norway’s, one that maintains a single market without EU membership, or like that of Flanders, a part of Belgium. While not quite as long as independence negotiations, these options would require long discussions about new powers for the Scottish Parliament, namely the power to negotiate transnational deals. All of these caveats are conditional on a flexible UK. While both Sturgeon and Theresa May have expressed a preference to work together within the existing framework, Britain has been far more skeptical of the European Union, and is less likely that both parties will be able to reach all of their ideals. So what’s next for Scotland? Only time will decide whether they negotiate their concerns through independence or within the UK, but extensive talks are certain.