12 September 2014
A Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September would undoubtedly diminish the UK in the world - but a close No vote will trigger a process of greater devolution which could also have a profound impact on UK foreign policy.
Richard Whitman

Professor Richard G Whitman

Associate Fellow, Europe Programme


UK desk at a UN Security Council meeting in New York. Photo by Getty Images.


The implications of Scottish independence for the UK’s role in Europe could be profound. With the rump UK likely to stay outside the eurozone, and the EU’s monetary union likely to deepen into a fiscal and political union, a reduced status in European diplomacy is one credible scenario. The UK would cease to be one of the EU's 'big three' member states alongside France and Germany. It would drop to fourth place behind Italy in terms of member state population size. It may face a diminished capacity for influence within EU institutions and its bilateral relationships with EU member states.

There may be diminished opportunities for leadership and coalition building within the EU on issues of UK national interest such as the preservation of the current UK rebate on the EU budget. Further, the claim on significant leadership positions within EU institutions (such as presidents of the European Council and European Commission, plus the expectation of weighty commissioner portfolios) may be reduced. The UK may even experience a lessening of influence with the United States if its capacity to exercise influence on EU policy-making is diminished.

Of key concern would be the UK's capacity to exercise its current level of influence on the direction of the European Union's defence policy. A rump UK, that for financial reasons, may further reduce its military and capabilities to a position subordinate to those of France, would lose its position as an EU defence policy agenda-setter.

With a reduced territory, population and GDP, the UK could choose to 'shrink' its foreign and security policy. Reducing the UK's diplomatic, security and defence infrastructure would present difficult choices over what should be priorities for expenditure. 

Scotland and the EU

Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond has argued that Scotland would not have to reapply for EU membership, but senior EU officials have publicly made clear that a membership application process would apply. Whatever the route to EU accession by Scotland it would not be able to enjoy the UK's current opt outs from membership of the euro, nor the Schengen area. These would be Treaty commitments for an independent Scotland.

Membership of the Schengen area would raise the prospect of the need for border control arrangements between the UK and an independent Scotland. A situation similar to the current arrangements for border control at the Eurotunnel joining the UK and France might be envisioned with UK border control officials screening arrivals from outside the Scotland and the United Kingdom at Scottish ports and airports. A passport union between the UK and Scotland (replicating the arrangement that exists between the UK and the Irish Republic) would facilitate the travel between the UK and its newly independent neighbour.

Control over External Affairs

Unlike the proposal for Scotland to remain in a currency union with the UK, there would be no sharing of the UK’s existing diplomatic and foreign policy-making machinery. Scotland would need to create the necessary infrastructure of a foreign ministry and overseas embassies and arrangements to provide for its own security and defence policy.

Even with a no vote in the Scottish independence referendum further devolution is a commitment by all the Westminster parties. While at present many aspects of domestic policy are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and Government, external policy including foreign affairs and intelligence and security remain under the control of Westminster. This may change with the Scottish administration seeking a greater say on the external implications of domestic policy and, as in Belgium, the creation of institutional arrangements to allow for the constituent nations of the UK to have an input into the formulation of external policies.

Loss of Power and Prestige

Scottish independence would give rise to perceptions overseas that the UK's weight and influence is in decline. The UK might face external pressure for its representation within regional and international organizations to be renegotiated and the issue of the appropriateness of its seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) might be questioned in some quarters. The UK’s UNSC status would be partly contingent upon what happens to the UK’s nuclear deterrent currently based in Scotland. Any reduction in the UK role in regional and international organizations outside the EU would reduce the authority of the UK inside the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). 

In addition there is the potential for the diminution of the UK's soft power. The cultural reach of the rump UK would be lessened if contacts with the Scottish Diaspora were severed. Furthermore the prestige of the UK as a successful multinational state could be compromised by the loss of a major territory within it; and uncertainty would be generated about whether further secessions might follow, serving to question the status of the Scot-less UK on the international stage.

Whatever the result of the vote on 18 September third-party perceptions of the ‘United’ nature of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have been altered. The nations and administrations of the United Kingdom will have much work to do in persuading outsiders that they remain outwardly engaged and internationally relevant and not introspectively focused on devolution, power sharing or dissolving their Union.

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