By a Newsnet reporter
Claims that an independent Scotland would be prevented from joining NATO if it insisted on the removal of the Trident nuclear weapons system from the Clyde have been undermined after it emerged a similar situation has arisen before.
The claims follow news that the Scottish government has opened talks with NATO to discuss membership of the international defence organisation for a future independent Scotland, the discussions were held in Brussels last month between senior Scottish civil servants and senior officials at NATO headquarters.
The news, which broke in a Guardian article on Wednesday, has been frantically spun by the anti-independence campaign and its supporters in the mainstream media as a "blow" to the Scottish Government's defence plans for an independent Scotland, however the reality is far more positive for the Scottish case.
According to reports, Holyrood was "warned" that a precondition of NATO membership is that the applicant should not have territorial or military disputes with another state. It was further reported that this meant NATO would be unwilling to accept the membership of a Scotland which insisted on the removal of nuclear weapons from its territory as this runs counter to NATO's "first strike" nuclear policy, to which all member states must agree.
Speaking to the Scotsman newspaper, the Lib Dem's Willie Rennie argued:
"If the SNP want to ditch Trident they'd need to ditch Nato too. Leaving Nato would leave Scotland without the cornerstone of defence in Europe, potentially exposing us to considerable threats."
However it has emerged that a clear precedent for a country demanding the removal of a NATO nuclear submarine base from its territory, and then acceding to NATO, has already been established. Spain's insistence on the closure of a US Polaris submarine base had no negative impact on the country's application to join NATO.
With the death of the dictator Franco in 1975, Spain began negotiations with the USA for the removal of American nuclear submarines from the joint Spanish-US naval base at Rota, near the city of Cádiz. Following an agreement between the dictator and the US government in 1964, the base had been used to refit and support American nuclear submarines carrying Polaris missiles, and to store the missiles' nuclear warheads.
A treaty between Spain and the USA agreeing the removal of the submarines and warheads was ratified by the US Senate in 1976. The removal of the nuclear weapons system was complete by 1979. Spain joined NATO in 1982, after its transition to democracy.
Although Spain had insisted upon the removal of NATO nuclear submarines and missiles, this did not prevent the country from acceding to NATO or accepting the so-called "nuclear first strike" doctrine. This is the policy by which the USA maintains it has the right to make first use of nuclear weapons in time of war.
The policy is a hangover from the Cold War, when the former Communist Bloc surpassed NATO nations in terms of conventional weapons and is quite distinct from a supposed insistence that a NATO member must host nuclear weapons on its soil. There is no such insistence amongst NATO's conditions of membership.
The Scottish Government maintains that an agreement on removing Trident from an independent Scotland will be reached in negotiations between Holyrood and Westminster in the 18 months between a Yes vote in the referendum, and Scotland's formal declaration of independence.
The Scottish Government also believes that it will be possible to negotiate Scotland's continuing membership of NATO within the same period of time. The experience of Spain and the removal of American nuclear submarines from Rota suggests that this timetable is not unreasonable, which is also apparently NATO's opinion vis-a-vis Scotland.
In a sign that NATO supports the Scottish Government's position, reporter Severin Carrell, writing in Wednesday's Guardian newspaper, admitted that NATO officials were open to the possibility of allowing Scotland to start fast-track talks on membership. This would not be the case if senior NATO officials believed there to be serious obstacles in Scotland's path.
The Scottish Government has already signalled its intention to enter into negotiations with Westminster in the event of a Yes vote in order to reach agreement on issues such as the removal of Trident. Both parties signed the historic Edinburgh agreement ensuring as smooth a transition as possible to independence in the event of a Yes vote and UK defence minister Philip Hammond has already confirmed that the Westminster government would not seek to block NATO membership of an independent Scotland.
In an interview broadcast on Newsnight Scotland, the Lib Dem's Willie Rennie maintained that Scotland could not get rid of Trident but then join NATO. However Mr Rennie was forced to concede that Scotland met most, if not all of the entry criteria, and no member state has signalled any intention to object.
A spokesperson for Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said:
"An independent Scotland’s continued membership of Nato will be in the strategic interests of our neighbours and partners, including the rest of the UK.
"We have made clear that that continued membership is contingent on the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland, and if the people of Scotland vote Yes they will have voted to support a proposition that calls for the removal of Trident at the earliest safe opportunity.
"The UK Government is committed to working constructively with us to make that happen, as they have pledged to respect the result of the referendum and to work constructively, in the interests of the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK, whatever the result."