Another referendum on independence? The future of the Scottish Parliament after Brexit

Today, Scotland elects a new parliament, and it is projected that the Scottish National Party (SNP), who campaigns on the promise of another vote on Scottish independence, will maintain its strong standing. It remains to be seen whether or not the SNP will be able to secure an absolute majority in the parliament – according to recent polls, it could do so by a single seat.[1]

Since the first referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, the question of the country’s secession from the United Kingdom was transformed by the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union: in the 2016 Brexit referendum, a comfortable 62% majority of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the EU. Five years later, after a longish struggle of negotiations and Britain’s formal departure on 31 DEC 2020, a recent poll found that some 53% of Scottish citizens ‘would vote for independence’ nowadays ‘but only if Scotland was to join the EU afterwards’.[2]

Contrary to several pro-European proclamations and campaigns by a variety of actors who advocate for Scotland’s (democratic) accession to the Union,[3] the EU’s governing bodies have to strike a delicate balance in their stance on the new referendum and potential ramifications: the development of the new relations between the UK and the EU are already strained and there are many open questions as to whether a (further) disintegrated UK is in the EU’s interest from a more general and geopolitical perspective.[4] The accession of Scotland as a new member state to the EU would create a new precedent with potential effects regarding other secessionist aspirations, e.g. with a view to the situation of Catalonia.

Scotland’s secession and ‘re-entry’ would also have significant impact on the structures of representative democracy in the European multilevel system: it would lead to the re-constitution of Scotland as a full-fledged member state as well as the re-constitution of the EU. This pertains especially to the status of Scotland’s parliament: the subnational or regional Scottish Parliament would be empowered, obtaining all the rights and parliamentary functions of EU national, member state parliaments. The prospective of the transformation and empowerment of parliaments below the level of the nation-state via secession and ‘re-entry’ into the EU is a rather special issue: Brexit was a historical first after all. But the Scottish case illustrates that the political dynamics and tensions between subnational autonomy and territorial representation amounts ‘no longer simply [to] a game between the subnational level and the central level within a state; it broadens to become a three-level game because the EU level is explicitly included’.[5]

Still, the Scottish case illustrates above all the difficulty to make predictions about the future role of subnational parliaments and claims about their representative function in the EU. The historical path dependencies of state-formation, nationalist allegiances and regional integration created a European landscape that is characterised by a strong diversity of ‘state traditions’.[6] This includes the development of subnational parliaments with a view to the ‘sheer diversity of representative bodies’ and regional strategies in the EU.[7] The Scottish Parliament is a long-standing institution, with its history dating back to the early 13th century. It is at the same time a rather young parliament, as it was re-established only in 1998 as part of the Scotland Act – after having ceased to exist in 1707, when Scotland and England united to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. The now pending question of Scottish independence and the nation’s future role in Europe adds another chapter to this history and also to the perennial issue of the relations and political dynamics between European regions, member states and the supranational level of EU governance.



[1] The Times, ‘SNP’s independence hopes on knife edge’ (1 MAY 2021): Link.

[2] Euobserver, ‘Poll: most scots want to leave UK for EU’ (26 MAR 2021): Link.

[3] See e.g., ‘Europe for Scotland’ (MAY 2021): Link.

[4] Compare e.g., The Economist, ‘Future of the Union: The untied Kingdom’ (15 APR 2021): Link.

[5] J.E. Fossum, ‘Reflections on the role of subnational parliaments in the European multilevel parliamentary field’, in: G. Abels and A. Eppler (eds.), Subnational parliaments in the EU multi-level parliamentary system (2015). Innsbruck: Studien-Verlag, 362.

[6] Loughlin and Peters, ‘State traditions, administrative reform and regionalization’, in: M. Keating and J. Loughlin (eds.), The political economy of regionalism (1997). London: Routledge, 41–62.

[7] J.E. Fossum, ‘Reflections on the role of subnational parliaments in the European multilevel parliamentary field’, 358.