A Tale of Two Memberships: Scotland and Northern Ireland’s Possible Paths to EU Membership as Independent States

The Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016 brought 30 million voters (with a 71.8% voter turnout) to the polls to decide whether the United Kingdom (UK) would stay in the European Union (EU). The “Leave” campaign narrowly won with 52% of the vote; however, when split by countries in the UK, Wales and England voted to leave while Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain by much larger margins. Additionally, demographics with a higher income, more education, and younger age generally voted to remain. Although the referendum was not legally binding, the new Conservative UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, stated that she has committed herself to the will of the people and will guide the UK leaving the EU. However, Prime Minister May also said that she will not invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which gives the country two years to negotiate its exit with EU members, before the end of 2016. Thus, the UK would remain a full member of the EU until Article 50 is invoked and the UK begins negotiations to leave. Once negotiations are fully over, the UK will officially no longer be a part of the EU; however, until that time, the UK is a full-fledged member. When the UK leaves the EU, it will need to negotiate a new trade deal because it will no longer be a part of the EU single market. Thus, there is a possibility that the EU would instate trade tariffs because the UK would not be part of the single market.

Since Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted overwhelmingly to remain, one or both of the countries may leave the UK in order to stay in the EU. However, there are two paths for the different countries. Scotland only has one option if it wants to remain in the EU: secede from the UK and join the EU as a separate country. Northern Ireland has two options: it can unite with the rest of Ireland in the EU and become part of the EU by joining an EU member state, or it could leave the UK and try to become a member of the EU member. The best option for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU is unification. Otherwise, Ireland would go through the same accession process as Scotland, which will have a long, difficult road to EU membership, if it gets in at all.

Accession Process

As the UK now has to negotiate its exit from the EU, there are talks of Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the UK to join the EU. If Northern Ireland were to join independently, it would join Scotland in the EU accession process.

The EU has strict criteria for membership: a country must have stable institutions that represent and ensure democracy, human rights and minority protection, and rule of law, a functioning market economy capable of dealing with competition in the EU market, and the ability to effectively implement membership obligations and to adhere “to the aims of political, economic and monetary union”. The first step to membership is an application for candidacy. Negotiations can only begin with a unanimous decision in the EU Council.

Accession involves 35 chapters relating to policy areas such as environment, rule of law, human rights, energy, and transportation. These chapters are non-negotiable, but candidates can determine how and when to adopt and implement them. Meanwhile, the EU receives guarantees on completion and effectiveness from the candidate country and from the Commission, which monitors implementation and benchmark requirements. Outside the 35 chapters, candidate countries also negotiate financial and transitional arrangements. The negotiations occur between representatives and ministers of the EU and the candidate country at what is called an intergovernmental conference. For each chapter, in a process called screening, the candidate country must meet the opening benchmarks before the chapter can be opened. Then, for each chapter, the candidate country must submit a position for negotiation while the EU adopts a common position and sets closing benchmarks for the chapter, which must be met before closing negotiations for that chapter. Some chapters have interim benchmarks that must be met. Thus, the length of negotiations may vary depending how prepared the country is to join the EU.

In closing negotiations, all negotiations for individual chapters must be finished. Details of membership, arrangements and deadlines, financial arrangements, and potential safeguard clauses are all in the Accession Treaty. The treaty has three steps to becoming a binding agreement: it must have the support of the EU Council, EU Commission, and European Parliament; the candidate and all EU member states sign it; the candidate country ratifies it according to their constitution. Once ratified, the candidate becomes an acceding country and will become a full member on the date agreed in the Treaty.


In the event that Scotland secedes from the UK, the EU headquarters in Brussels stated that Scotland has to exit the EU with the UK and cannot remain on its own. Additionally, if Scotland were to secede before the UK leaves the EU, it would be leaving an EU country and thus be leaving the EU. Therefore, Scotland will have to go through the accession process as an independent country.

The accession process poses a number of problems for Scotland, mainly the length of the negotiations and its financial burdens and obligations. Due to the lengthy negotiations, Scotland would be on its own, neither in the UK nor the EU, for some time, which would hinder trade and investment. Additionally, Scotland’s projected country deficit is three times that of the UK, and Scotland would have a higher deficit than the UK does now. The EU limits the amount of debt and deficit its member states can have, and since the economic crisis and the Eurozone crisis, it will likely oversee these requirements more closely and ensure that its members adhere to them. Thus, Scotland might have to reduce their deficit in order to become a member of the EU. Additionally, as reported in 2015,, Scotland has 6.2% unemployment, compared to the UK’s 5.1%, and GDP growth of 1.9%, compared to the UK’s 2.3%. In addition to these potential economic problems, EU membership would be vastly more expensive for Scotland than it was under the UK because Scotland would lose the UK membership contribution opt-outs that Margaret Thatcher negotiated during her time as Prime Minister.

Another potential problem for Scotland’s EU membership is the potential problems regarding its referendum to leave the UK. The EU values democracy, rule of law, and human rights; however,many Scots were ineligible to vote in the referendum. Anyone who is a citizen of a Commonwealth country, the EU, or the UK living in Scotland was able to vote; however, Scots residing outside of Scotland were unable to register to vote. This could call into question whether the process was truly democratic, as some Scottish citizens could not vote in the referendum. This issue must be addressed during negotiations, and Scotland would have to comply with EU democratic ideals, as many Scots were unable to vote in a decision. Thus, looking at all of the problems with Scotland’s independent path to EU membership, it would take years, if not over a decade, to negotiate membership.

Northern Ireland

Given the difficulties that Scotland will face if they try to become an EU member on its own, Northern Ireland’s best path to EU membership is through unification with the rest of Ireland. Using the case of German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall as a precedent for EU accession, if Northern Ireland becomes part of Ireland, it will enter the EU as part of a member state.

When East Germany and West Germany united, East Germany gained from joining the EU because it “could rely on the tried and tested rules and institutions, the West German social market economy and immediate access to large amounts of financial resources”. Unification inspired high expectations, and East Germany gained advanced, sophisticated institutions and administrators. Unification eliminated most of the legal barriers regarding sovereignty, which usually delay establishment of institutions and full EU membership. However, there was a cultural difference between the two Germanys, and institutions were established on top of East Germany’s previous institutions.

There is still a divide between the two sides of Germany in terms of economic prosperity. After ten years of membership, labor productivity was still 60% of that of West Germany. There has been moderate improvement since unification, though. In 1991, East German income per capita compared to West Germany was 40%, and in 2016, East German income per capita compared to West Germany reached two thirds. Due to Soviet occupation for over forty years, East Germany has a higher level of social distrust than its Western counterpart, which plays a role in its development and integration in the EU. Overall, the economic gap between Germany and East Germany has significantly decreased despite remaining differences.

Although the German unification was successful, it highlights potential problems for Northern Ireland to light. Aside from cultural, religious, and historic tensions between Ireland and Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland might not be as developed because it would not go through the negotiation process or receive EU funding for meeting set benchmarks. However, Northern Ireland has been a part of the EU as long as the UK has, so it has the infrastructure required. Additionally, Northern Ireland was not under Soviet rule and has been developing alongside the rest of the UK and Ireland. Given the minor economic differences between the two countries, Irish unification would be the best option for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU.


Although Brexit will likely have a negative economic effect on the United Kingdom, the country is large and developed enough to thrive regardless of its EU membership status. However, if Scotland opts for independence, it will struggle while if Northern Ireland unites with the rest of Ireland, it will continue on its path in the EU. In particular, Scotland trades more with the rest of the UK than any other country, dwarfing its exports to non-UK countries by comparison. Looking at other economic indicators like deficit and debt, Scotland’s independence would likely increase borrowing and decrease economic stability and security. As Scotland relies heavily on its robust banking sector, the decrease in stability would lead to less investment and fewer banks in the country. As a result, Scotland would regret leaving the UK because the UK would remain stable and prosperous, as it could get products that usually come from Scotland elsewhere. In addition to economic instability, the likely lengthy amount of time it would take to join the EU, if at all, should dissuade Scotland from independence. With neither the UK nor the EU, Scotland would be a small country of just over 5 million with an unstable economy and decreased trade, investment, and movement of human capital. These consequences should, if Northern Ireland were to pursue independence, persuade Northern Irelanders to unite with the rest of Ireland and join the EU upon unification. Northern Ireland has a simpler path out of the UK and into the EU than Scotland, so it would likely not have a major effect on the economy other than changing currency.