Scotland’s EU charm offensive

SNP's opponents warn relationship building in Brussels shouldn't be used to promote independence.

Scotland’s EU charm offensive

This article is part of a special report on the Disunited Kingdom.

Scottish politicians aren’t just engaged in a frantic contest for votes back home — they’re also waging a long-term battle to win friends in Brussels.

Edinburgh’s quest to gain influence in the EU receives much less attention than the campaign for next month’s Scottish parliament election. But politicians across party lines see those efforts as vital as the country adjusts to Brexit and faces the question once again of whether to seek independence.

Scottish politicians and officials are behind two main drives to lobby their EU counterparts. One, backed by the Scottish government, seeks to reassure the EU that Scotland — which voted against Brexit — wants to maintain close and friendly ties to the bloc.

Although the Scottish government is run by the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), that campaign — backed by slick videos that pop up in the social media feeds of members of the Brussels bubble — does not explicitly address Scotland’s future status.

However, at the same time, SNP politicians are engaged in an effort dubbed “Project No Surprises” that seeks to reassure European policymakers that an independent Scotland would be a reliable and familiar partner, committed to EU and NATO membership.

The two campaigns have raised questions about where the line should be drawn between promoting good relations with the EU and setting the stage for an independent Scotland’s accession to the bloc. 

The SNP’s opponents, who want Scotland to remain part of the U.K., warn there is a risk that the boundaries between the two campaigns become blurred — with both being seen as part of an overall effort to win over EU politicians to the prospect of Scottish independence.

Brussels BFFs

Over the past months, the Scottish government — which already runs international offices in cities such as Paris, Berlin and Beijing — has been boosting its EU engagement through the European Friends of Scotland Group.

Founded in 2020 and run with support from the Scottish government’s Brussels office, the informal grouping brings together 35 MEPs who take a close interest in Europe’s relationship with Scotland. 

The diverse club’s members range from socialist and liberal MEPs to the exiled Catalan pro-independence politician, Carles Puigdemont, and the German center-right chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, David McAllister, the son of a Scottish father and German mother.

The group’s aims include “promoting stronger economic, social and cultural relations between the EU and Scotland” — as well as “encouraging cooperation and understanding in key areas” and “helping to maintain links between elected Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and MEPs,” according to the Scottish government’s formal description

And while the friendship group is officially neutral on the question of Scotland’s status, it has become a vehicle for Scottish officials to retain a close dialogue with EU politicians. 

In March, Scottish Europe Minister Jenny Gilruth and SNP President Michael Russell, who serves as Cabinet secretary for the constitution, Europe and external affairs, attended a virtual roundtable with some of the group’s members. 

And last summer, the friendship group co-hosted a virtual event with Scotland House Brussels — an EU hub for the Scottish government and other authorities — where Russell discussed the post-pandemic recovery with senior German Social Democrat MEP Udo Bullmann.

“The Scottish Government engages regularly with the EU Institutions, Member States and other organisations and stakeholders based in Brussels to promote Scotland’s interests and to share and exchange knowledge, best practice and expertise across a range of policy areas,” a Scottish government spokesperson said via email.

For some members of the Friends of Scotland group, however, the club’s role is in part to ease the process of a return to the EU, whether Scotland rejoins separately or as part of the U.K.

Swedish MEP Erik Bergkvist, a member of the friendship group, said it aims to find “better ways to cooperate” between Scotland and the EU and “also build the necessary bridges so it will be easy for [the] U.K. one day to come back to the European Union.”

“If it happens [that] different parts of the U.K. come in different time periods, that’s something they have to figure out,” said Bergkvist, a social democrat.

German Green MEP Terry Reintke, another group member, said: “We want to have close relationships — no matter whether Scotland is going to be independent, or whether there’s going to be a referendum, or as part of the U.K.”

Marina Kaljurand, a former Estonian foreign minister who now serves as an MEP and was on the March videoconference, said that there was a “pretty general conversation” touching upon economic ties and student exchanges.

“I think the most important thing was just to say that … we’re here to support you,” said Kaljurand, who represents Estonia’s Social Democratic Party. “So of course it’s up to Scottish people to decide upon their future. But we are here and happy to welcome them back whenever it’s possible.”

The Scottish government is not only focusing on relationships with elected politicians. In 2019-2020, it spent over £700,000 on an advertising campaign to promote the Scottish brand abroad.  

The campaign “aims to relay the positive contribution that Scotland intends to continue making in Europe via a fair and green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, through investment, innovation and international cooperation, as well as striving for a fairer, more inclusive society and economy,” the Scottish government spokesperson said. 

It includes rhetoric emphasizing Scotland’s continued close relationship with Europe. 

“Europe. We’re leaving you, they say. But we won’t be leaving what we have together,” says one YouTube ad, set to wistful music. “We’ve come too far and we’re far too fond of you,” says the ad, which has over 163,000 views on YouTube.

Meanwhile, SNP politicians are campaigning to convince their European counterparts that an independent Scotland would be a reliable ally, seeking to learn lessons from the 2014 referendum campaign.

“In 2014 and in the run-up to 2014, I don’t think we did enough to reach out, to persuade, to contextualize what was going on within Scotland,” said Alyn Smith, the Scottish National Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson and a member of the U.K. parliament.

Smith — who previously spent over 15 years in Brussels as an SNP MEP — has recently teamed up with a colleague to launch “Project No Surprises.”

“Of course, it is primarily an internal Scottish debate,” Smith said of the discussion around independence. “But given that the international aspects of independence are so important to the case for independence — and we want to be independent in order to apply for EU membership, in order to apply for NATO membership —  we are … firmly of the view that we need to do ‘Project No Surprises.'”

Smith said he plans to spend more time explaining his views in Brussels, once health conditions allow. “We must make sure that our visibility is there as Scotland, not as a part of the U.K.,” he said.

‘Different agenda’

While Scottish politicians across parties agree that the country should maintain a good relationship with Brussels, there are questions about how the government’s advocacy efforts could be interpreted.  

“I am supportive of the Scottish government working to ensure that Scottish interests are still important within Europe, and building strong relationships,” said Scottish Labour politician Claire Baker. 

But Baker — who has been serving as deputy convener of the Scottish parliament committee covering European affairs — said advocacy efforts should not be used for party goals. 

“I think there is a risk, because we recognize the SNP have a different agenda,” she said.

“If it’s about representing Scotland’s best interest and about the Scottish parliament having a voice within Europe, then I’m supportive of that,” Baker added, noting that “I do think that more could actually be achieved in Scotland if they were to work with the U.K. government in trying to achieve this.”

The Scottish government spokesperson said its work in Brussels “is driven by the ambitions and plans of Scottish Ministers” but it “also engages constructively with the U.K. government and the other devolved governments in Brussels across a range of areas of shared interests.”

Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Willie Rennie said his party supports “keeping close and warm connections with our friends and neighbors in Europe.”

But, he said, “the Scottish government should be careful not to move from working together in partnership, into a more narrow political campaign, which has just got their self-interest at heart.”

Stephen Gethins, a former SNP MP who is now a professor at the University of St Andrews, noted previous Scottish governments that opposed independence had also engaged with Brussels.

“The actual engagement and advocacy within the European institutions is not a new thing,” said Gethins, the author of a book on Scotland’s place in the world.

He said engaging with EU policymakers “makes a lot of sense from a Scottish perspective” and also “fits in with the political objectives of the government.”

But the Scottish government’s critics caution that EU institutions are unlikely to engage in talks about an independent Scotland unless that status has been clearly and legally established.

“I think the Scottish government are doing all they can to build the world they want to live in,” said former MEP Ian Duncan, a Conservative who now serves as a deputy speaker in the House of Lords. “Their challenges will be that the EU will be less inclined to speak with them comfortably until such time as clarification is given on the status of the Scottish government.”