Scotland’s constitutional status is once again in question after Nicola Sturgeon’s second referendum plan received Scottish Parliament backing.

The First Minister justified a bid for a second vote within five years by pointing to the UK’s imminent exit from The European Union, which was formally triggered on March 29 2017.

Ferret Fact Service | Scotlands impartial fact check project

If the SNP’s independence dream is fulfilled, what would happen to an independent Scotland’s EU membership?

Spain’s foreign minister Alfonso Dastis claimed Scotland would have to leave the union and join a “queue” to return. This was also supported in a comment by Scottish Conservative MSP and constitution spokesman Adam Tomkins, who said an independent Scotland would “join the back of the queue” for EU membership.

A Google search shows the claim is repeated throughout the UK press.

After investigating these claims, The Ferret Fact Service found no evidence of a formal queuing system to enter the European Union. So would Scotland have to wait until the other countries were processed before being allowed back in? The short answer is No.

Scotland "would have to queue, meet the requirements for entry, hold negotiations and the result would be that these negotiations would take place." Alfonso Dastis, Spanish foreign minister


It’s very likely that Scotland will be leaving the EU whether it remains part of the UK or goes its own way.

While it is not impossible that member states could agree to continue Scotland’s membership if a referendum was held before Brexit had concluded, many legal experts doubt Scotland could remain inside through some sort of special deal. Assuming no special deal is in place, an independent Scotland would find it very difficult to conclude the normal negotiations before the UK leaves.

There is no direct precedent for a country remaining in the EU after separation from a previous member, and the position of a number of EU officials is that Scotland would not automatically stay in the UK’s place.

In 2012, then European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso explained the position in a letter on Scotland’s position. In March, a European Commission spokesperson confirmed it would still apply.

"The EU is founded on the Treaties which apply only to the Member States who have agreed and ratified them. If part of the territory of a Member State would cease to be part of that state because it were to become a new independent state, the Treaties would no longer apply to that territory. In other words, a new independent state would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the EU and the Treaties would no longer apply on its territory." Jose Manuel Barosso, Former president of the European Commission

In other words, if Scotland left the UK (before Brexit was concluded) it would not keep EU status.

So the Scottish Government would have to apply for membership of the EU through Article 49, the formal process of gaining member status.

This is by no means a straightforward process and will likely take years to complete, although many EU authorities and officials expect Scotland to be well placed to enter. While it has been suggested Spain could block a Scottish application in an attempt to quell its own secessionist movement, Mr Dastis has confirmed there would be no such veto.

The claims by the Spanish foreign minister and Mr Tomkins that Scotland will be in a ‘queue’ do not accurately portray the process of EU accession, as a look at the most recent EU expansion reveals.

How does a country join the European Union?

An applicant country to the EU must go through three broad stages:
1) Firstly it must be accepted as a candidate.
2) It must then enter formal negotiations, which require the adoption of EU law and preparations to enforce it together with any other reforms necessary to meet membership conditions.
3) After these are agreed by the existing member states it may then join.

This is known as adoption of the acquis, which is the ‘body of common rights and obligations’ binding EU member states together.

There are currently five countries with official candidate status – Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey.

The most recent country to join the EU was Croatia, which finally joined on July 1, 2013 after applying in 2003.

But Turkey remains in negotiation to become a member despite applying for the then-European Economic Community in 1987, and being declared eligible for EU integration in 1997.

This is down to Turkey having not yet adopted criteria set out in their ongoing negotiation to become members. Each negotiation area is not completed until every EU government is satisfied.

Iceland also ‘overtook’ them in its negotiations to join, before requesting not to be considered a candidate country in 2015.

The point is explicitly dealt with on the European Commission’s website.

"The pace of the negotiations then depends on the speed of reform and alignment with EU laws in each country. The duration of negotiations can vary – starting at the same time as another country is no guarantee of finishing at the same time." European Commission website

It is clear then that there is no formal queue for candidate nations to join. That does not mean, however, that the process of joining will necessarily run entirely smoothly.

Ferret Fact Service Verdict: FALSE

The claims from Alfonso Dastis and Adam Tomkins are not accurate. An independent Scotland would not have to wait in a queue for the rest of the current candidates to be processed. The system of entry to the European Union is dependent on fulfilling the criteria for membership to the satisfaction of EU member countries, not on a first-come first-served basis.

This claim is false

Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Any questions or want to get involved? Email us at or join our community forum.

The Scottish Conservatives did not respond to a request to provide evidence for Adam Tomkins’ claim.

Photos thanks to Euseson, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons and Håkan DahlströmCC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

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Adam Tomkins

An independent Scotland would have to ‘join the back of the queue’ for EU membership.


  1. conrad says:

    Great to see this project kicking off!

    Have you thought about how you’d represent “technically true, but lacks context” on your truth scale? “Misrepresentative” or “Twisting the truth” might be briefer ways of putting it. This is one aspect I worry about on other fact checking websites, which in focusing narrowly on truth/falsity ignore the larger argument.

    A good current example would be the life expectancy story that Wings Over Scotland highlighted over the weekend: that Scottish life expectancy has “stalled” for the first time in 150 years. While technically true, this lacks a UK context wherein UK life expectancy is actually dropping, so the narrow focus of the story allows the author to present as a negative something that could be argued as a success in fighting against a greater tide. A related approach is where a particular negative statistic is seized upon from a bouquet of positives — quite common among health and economics journalism, where bundles of figures tend to all come out at once…

  2. Hello Conrad,

    We put together our scale and fact-checking methodology after research and contact with other fact- checking groups, and with reference to the International Fact Checkers code of principles.

    Our scale goes has six points, from True to FFS! which are explained in our Ferret Fact Service methodology page, which will be linked to each Fact Check.

    Your point about how to evaluate claims which are lacking in context or omit certain facts is an important one which we thought a lot about when developing the project.

    We rate our fact checks on a six-point scale:

    True – The claim is accurate, and has not left out mitigating factors or important context

    Mostly True – The claim is still true, but requires further information or clarification to create a full picture

    Half True – The claim is somewhat or partially accurate, but leaves out crucial information or is selectively taken out of context

    Mostly False – The claim may contain a kernel of truth but leaves out facts which lead one to a different impression.

    False – The claim is incorrect, not accurate.

    FFS! (For Facts’ Sake) – The claim is baseless, ridiculous and/or logically impossible!

    This scale allows to take into account that many claims may not be entirely true or false, but can still be misleading.

    Selective use of statistics is a very important area to fact check, and will definitely feature in future checks as the FFS develops.

    Alastair from Ferret Fact Service

  3. conrad says:

    Thanks for the explanation Alastair! As you work on the system, I guess I might be inclined to add two items to your final rating graphic to reflect this excellent information:

    • Make the whole rating image a clickable link to your methodology page, ideally to the paragraph that explains the exact rating you’ve given.
    • Add mouseovers to each of the markings on your scale, so people can quickly see the brief explanations you’ve given above, just by hovering over them on the graphic.

    Really cool there’s an International Fact Checkers’ Code of Principles :slight_smile:

  4. In a previous life I ran a fact-checking site, and a “factcheck watch,” where I followed the famous US-based fact checkers (Politifact, The Washington Post) and detailed how they distort the truth to fit a narrative. I am interested to see how The Ferret handles its fact checking, so please indulge this observation.

    One of the ways the fact checkers distort their results is by reducing complex answers to a simple scale, which hides the complexity of the issue. Then, inevitably, they ask questions that suit the scale, and torture the analysis to fit the scale.

    In this case, a decent investigation is ruined by a similar desire to reduce a complex issue to fit the scale. For most readers the real issue is not about the “queue” but about the process, and you do a good job of explaining that. It is clear that Scotland will be out of the EU and have many requirements to get back in. But by focussing on the question of the “queue” you can then say that the result is ‘false’, misleading readers who might not read the full analysis.

    While it seems you are aware of the issue, you should be wary of The Fact Checkers Code of Principles. Those ‘principles’ have led to a situation where less than 30% of people in the US trust fact checkers. Those principles might make the fact-checking community happy, but they don’t give confidence to the reader. You’d be better to abandon the scale and simply give multiple points as answers, lest you become slaves to the scale.

  5. I’d have expected at least an acknowledgement of the fact that no country has ever left the EU before and in the event of a successful independence vote, prior to March 2019, politicians may seek to negotiate a continuation of the current EU citizen rights held by Scottish residents. But caveated that the “holding tank” has been the subject of speculation and until the event becomes reality, it is not possible to offer a conclusion, either way…

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