17 October 2012
Richard Whitman

Professor Richard G Whitman

Associate Fellow, Europe Programme


William Hague, UK foreign secretary, speaks at a news conference following a UN Security council on the continuing situation in Syria on 30 August 2012 in New York City. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.
William Hague, UK foreign secretary, following a UN Security Council meeting. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.


This week it was confirmed that in 2014 Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. The possible implications for foreign and security policy of a newly independent Scotland and a 'rump' UK have been largely neglected to-date.

If Scotland went its own way it could determine its foreign and European policies. 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. Independent 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. The major impact of independence will fall on Scotland in its requirement to create a foreign and security policy and seek membership of regional and international organizations including the United Nations.

Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond has argued that Scotland would not have to reapply for EU membership. However, if required to apply to join as an independent state, Scotland would not be able to enjoy the UK's current opt outs from membership of the Euro nor the Schengen area. Accession to the latter would raise the prospect of the need for border control arrangements between the UK and an independent Scotland. Furthermore, within the EU Scotland may take its own positions on matters that might contradict the interests of the rump UK. 

UK Foreign Policy 

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 is 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 with a reduced military and capabilities 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. 

View from Abroad

A split could 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 rump UK on the international stage.

The decision to hold the Scottish independence referendum will now bring much closer scrutiny of the possible consequences for both Scotland the rump UK. There is much thinking to be done in London and Edinburgh on how the two states may operate internationally if the Scottish public vote for independence.