EU membership: a queue or not a queue?

EU membership: a queue or not a queue?

by Ian Duncan MEP
article from Friday 17, February, 2017

IT HAS BEEN SAID that a Brit will happily form an orderly queue of one. Brits have a peculiar love affair with queuing; it’s almost as if we invented it. Recently I found myself in a queue at Brussels airport. It took me way too long to figure out that since I already had a ticket and my flight hadn’t been called, I had nothing to queue for. 

Cue queue kerfuffle

This past weekend, queues have very much been on my mind. On Friday, I had posted an article in which the Head of the European Commission’s Representation in the UK, Jacqueline Minor, quoted her boss Jean-Claude Juncker ruling out any further ‘enlargements’ of the EU during his term. Traditionally, Commission officials would halt at that point, but boldly Minor went on, saying: ‘so that takes you to 2020 […] There are a number of official candidate countries [which] are still quite some way away from meeting the criteria for membership. And obviously were Scotland to become independent they would join that list.’ 

This was a major statement by Ms Minor, so it was no surprise that she was back on the airwaves the following day to tidy up her earlier intervention. She said there was ‘no reason why [Scotland] would not be accepted into the normal accession process,’ and she re-iterated: ‘[Scotland] would probably still have on its statute books a fair amount of European rules, which would mean it was starting from a point different from other applicant countries, who normally have to go through the entire process of aligning their rules with European rules.’

She got the genie back in the bottle. Almost.

I wonder what she meant by that?

There are three take-homes from Ms Minor’s comments: an independent Scotland would have to apply for EU membership from outside using the ‘normal accession process,’ (no more talk of ‘succession’); any membership application would have to wait til 2020; and, if Scotland was still compliant with the body of EU law, it could expect to begin negotiations from a more advanced starting point. Given these important statements, it may come as a surprise that the furore that followed raged over something quite trivial, namely whether an applicant nation being on a ‘list’ was like being in a ‘queue’.

On the outside looking in

I have been trying to work out the best way of describing the holding pen for members seeking EU membership. The best I can come up with is that it is like the queue outside a nightclub. It doesn't really matter when you joined the queue, if you are pretty the bouncers will let you in, and if you’re not, they won’t. (Perhaps not the most PC description, but I’m going to return to it later, so hold on to that analogy).

Three countries are currently negotiating membership (Turkey, Montenegro, and Serbia), two have had their application accepted but negotiations are yet to begin (Macedonia & Albania) and Bosnia & Herzegovina has applied to join but has not yet been granted candidate status (see table). Turkey has been there for a long time, with three states (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, Croatia in 2013) entering the club whilst Turkey shuffled its feet outside. Macedonia too has been outside for quite a while, trying to catch the bouncer’s eye. Kosovo (as a result of Spanish intervention) wasn’t even allowed to join the queue.



Application received

Negotiations began

Acquis1 Chapters closed




1 of 33

Macedonia (C)







2 of 33

Albania (C)







1 of 34

Bosnia & Herzegovina (A)





1Acquis Communautaire (the accumulated legislation, legal acts & court decisions which constitute the body of EU law).

(A) Applicant nation; (C) Candidate

A queue by any other name

Are these would-be EU members really in a queue? They are certainly waiting to gain entry of that there is no doubt. In the UK a queue is an orderly progression to the front of the line. However, no one could claim that EU applicants make an orderly progress. Not all would-be member states start from the same point, and even when they do, as with the former Yugoslav republics, they do not all progress at the same pace. Slovenia gained admission in 2004, Croatia in 2013. Serbia and Montenegro are in the early stages of negotiation. Poor old Macedonia is no where. And Kosovo hasn’t even joined the queue.

In the case of Macedonia, Greece has objected to the very name Macedonia, its flag and its attempts to expropriate Phillip of Macedon, so despite the fact that Macedonia lodged its application in 2004 (about the same time as the other Balkan states) it is still on the outside looking in. Spain objected (along with 4 other EU states) to Kosovo’s declared independence and EU ambitions, putting paid to its application.

Actually, if only there was a British queuing system, you would know where you were. Without it, Member States are free to stall, or slow, any application. And the dispiriting fact for those countries currently in an EU accession holding pattern is that delay rarely has anything to do with the failings of the applicant nation and everything to to with the domestic affairs of the objecting nation.

Would an independent Scotland have to wait to get in?

The ‘normal accession process’ described by Ms Minor contains over thirty negotiating chapters, ranging from social policy & employment to economic & monetary policy, energy to fisheries, each of which must be signed off by the Commission before accession can move forward.

Ms Minor noted that Scotland, as part of a member state, would likely still be compliant with the body of EU law. However, whether it remained committed to the extant law of each of the negotiating chapters remains to be seen. Accepting the Fisheries Chapters without change would bring fishermen back into the Common Fisheries Policy. Not sure that would be popular in Banff & Buchan.

The Economic & Monetary Policy chapter would be a challenge given the absence of a designated currency, central bank or established financial regulatory framework. Scotland’s budget deficit at over three times the limit for EU accession states (9.5% of GDP as against a limit of 3%) would also cause issue.

And then there are the various exemptions that Scotland enjoys, all of which would have to be fought for anew: exemption from the Euro, Schengen, the numerous VAT exemptions (the UK currently enjoys the largest number of exemptions in the EU, covering foods, medicines, and children’s clothing, etc.). And perhaps the greatest exemption of all, the Thatcher rebate, which has reduced Scotland’s overall financial commitment since 1984. If negotiations cannot secure its retention, then Scotland’s membership dues rise significantly.

Resolving these issues and other would take time, none has an automatic solution, nor would Scotland wish to accept a deal that was detrimental to its interests.  Would Scotland be queuing or waiting? You takes your pick.

Would Scotland be at the back of the queue?

That’s what Esteban Pons, leader of the largest group of Spanish MEPs said just the other week in response to a speech by Fiona Hyslop MSP, Scotland’s Minister for External Affairs: ‘If once the UK leaves, and Scotland decides to leave the UK, then you can join the queue after Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Turkey to join the EU.’  

Sr Pons’ remarks should be seen alongside those of Ms Minor regarding Scotland’s broad compliance with EU law. However, they do portend a challenge, since a single member state can halt accession in its tracks (as Macedonia knows only too well). When I made this point on social media, in pantomime fashion, the cybermob chanted back, ‘Oh no they dont! Apparently Pons didn’t know what he was talking about, was lying, represented no-one, didn’t speak for Spain, was a Tory fellow-traveller, and so on. Irrespective your views on Pons, or Spain, for that matter, I would argue that sometimes its worth responding to the smoke detector rather than waiting for the smoke. Few on social media agreed.

EU Queue if you want to

If the MSM media is to be trusted the leader of the Scottish National Party will shortly call for a second independence referendum. I’m not sure many Scots are enthused by the prospect, but I’m not sure that will matter. There is little doubt that the EU will feature strongly in any future ballot.

Whichever way you describe the pre-accession holding pattern to which would-be EU member states aspire - list, queue, nightclub entranceway - certain elements are becoming clear. Admission before 2020 is verboten, so says Jean-Claude Juncker. Thereafter admission will be determined by the normal accession process. Scotland, almost uniquely, has an advantage in so far as it will almost certainly remain compliant with the corpus of EU law for some time to come. There are rules, however, that Scotland would almost certainly wish to contest, not least those governing fisheries.

There are also other aspects which Scotland would have to fight hard to retain: the share of the UK rebate, the UK VAT exemptions, the euro opt out, the justice opt-ins, the Schengen exclusion. And each will take time to resolve, unless Scotland is willing to simply abandon the fight. Whether a member state raises particular concerns remains to be seen (you are free to interpret the remarks of various Spanish political leaders as you will).

And while these matters are resolved Scotland will remain on the outside, forming an orderly queue of one.


ThinkScotland exists thanks to readers' support - please donate in any currency and often

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter & like and share this article
To comment on this article please go to our facebook page