Reports in the Scottish media that the European Commission has sent a letter to the House of Lords claiming an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for EU membership, have been dismissed by a spokesman for EC President José Manuel Barroso.
The story, which originally appeared in the Scotsman newspaper, claimed that a House of Lords committee had been sent an official letter that contradicted SNP claims that an independent Scotland would remain a member of the EU.
However a spokesman for Mr Barroso described the claims made in the article as “incorrect” and insisted no decision had yet been made on how to respond to the committee’s request to the EC President for a statement on an independent Scotland’s EU status.
Responding to a question from Newsnet Scotland, the spokesman said: "President Barroso has been invited to contribute to the House of Lords inquiry on the economic implications for the United Kingdom of Scottish Independence. The President has not yet replied.
"The Commission position is well known and set out in the series of responses given to European parliamentary questions. The Commission has been very clear that we do not comment on specific situations but can only give a view in general".
He added: "So to be clear – no reply has been decided or sent by the President yet so the Scotsman story is incorrect."
According to the article headlined - Scottish independence: Separate Scotland must apply to join EU, warns Brussels – the letter is a “significant blow to the Nationalists”.
In the article, the journalist who wrote the piece said: “… the European Commission has written to a House of Lords committee stating that if Scots voters back independence, existing treaties which cover the UK’s EU membership will ‘cease to apply’,”
The report added: “The letter, seen by The Scotsman, states that independence ‘would not have a neutral impact’.
It adds: “If a territory of a member state ceases to be part of that member state because it has become an independent state then the treaties would cease to apply to that territory.”
The journalist also claims: “The letter appears to answer the questions surrounding one of the most controversial issues in the independence debate.”
The official statement from the EC describing the story as “incorrect” and that no reply has yet been decided will raise questions regarding the veracity of many of the subsequent reports. Since being published early on Thursday morning, almost all of Scotland’s main stream news outlets have treated the original article as credible.
Writing in the Times newspaper, former Scotsman journalist Hamish Macdonell repeated the claims and said: “European officials made it clear that a separate [sic] Scotland would have to reapply for EU membership.” And that “Alex Salmond’s hopes of securing a Yes vote in the independence referendum suffered a major setback”
Mr Macdonnell added: “Scotland would then have to negotiate the conditions of re-entry to Europe with the existing member states — which could mean signing up to the euro.
"The European Commission’s official position on Scottish independence was revealed in a letter sent by Brussels officials to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee.”
Also eager to report the Scotsman article was BBC Scotland. The broadcaster reported the claims contained in the article throughout the day, despite no confirmation of any letter having been given by the European Commission.
In several broadcasts, BBC Scotland reporter Raymond Buchanan claimed that the letter existed but questioned whether it contained the text reported by the Scotsman. Mr Buchanan also claimed that the EC had in fact already “hinted” that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply.
Mr Buchanan described Scotland's EU status as a “big economic question” in the independence debate and suggested that joining the Euro may be the price of new membership.
Mr Buchanan’s BBC colleague, Gavin Hewitt claimed that the European Commission would make it “absolutely clear” that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for membership.
Responding to the reports, a spokesman for Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described the Scotsman story as “fabricated” and said:
"Serious questions now need to be asked as to where these claims came from and what role members of the House of Lords Committee and the UK political parties played in this fabricated story.
"This incident shows that these Westminster committees and their inquiries are simply anti-independence propaganda tools, and are not seriously considering the opportunities of independence.
"The Scottish government will be writing to the European Commission making clear our serious concerns about this incident."
If, as is being claimed by the EC, that no reply to the House of Lords has been decided and no official letter has been sent, then questions will be asked as to the motivation of many reporters and journalists who have been eager to promote this story.
If, on the other hand the EC have indeed sent communications expressing such views then there will be questions as to why denials have been issued.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that the Scotsman newspaper has altered its original article in which it claimed a letter had been sent, to one which makes no such claim.
The original article stated: “In a significant blow to the Nationalists, the European Commission has written to a House of Lords committee…” [emphasis ours]
The has now changed to: “In a significant blow to the Nationalists, the European Commission has written a letter intended for a House of Lords committee…”
Also, the following: “However, in a letter to the Lords economic affairs committee…” has become “However, in a letter for the Lords economic affairs committee…”
Sadly, the earlier claims that a letter had already been sent were circulated within several media outlets before the corrections were applied.