21 Feb 2017
I voted to remain in the EU despite its shortcomings. The common market is a good thing; the rest, from the Euro to the Common Fisheries Policy, the Strasbourg travelling circus to the Common Agricultural Policy, not so much.
If the chatter is to be believed, another independence referendum is imminent, and Europe will be front and centre. The report by Kirsty Hughes and Tobias Lock will no doubt feature in the debate to come and therefore deserves consideration. I am in agreement with them on this key point: an independent Scotland would have to follow the ‘normal accession criteria’ for membership. Scotland cannot succeed the UK as a member state. Whatever deal Scotland currently enjoys as part of the UK, would not be on the table. Scotland would be applying as a new entity.
The report’s central premise, that an independent Scotland would have the ‘easiest accession to the EU of any country, ever,’ rests upon a series of bold assertions.
Assumption 1. You have to win an independence referendum. The polls have barely moved despite Brexit, and over one third of SNP voters, including former minister Alex Neil MSP, voted Leave. Independence is not a given.
Assumption 2. Scotland would happily sign back up to all existing EU laws. Tell that to former Scots Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead MSP, already claiming that the UK government will ‘sell out’ Scottish fishermen during Brexit negotiations. Would the Scottish Government really condemn Scottish fishermen to another life sentence in the Common Fisheries Policy without a struggle? What about the Canadian Free Trade Agreement that the SNP oppose and its MEPs voted against last week. Happy to sign up to that too? Accession is always easier if you don’t fight for anything.
Assumption 3. Scotland could secure opt outs from Schengen and the Euro. Scotland enjoys a number of opt outs as part of the UK. Each one would have to be argued anew, against stiff opposition. Here is Guy Verhofstadt, the SNP go-to MEP, last week in the European Parliament: ‘the next revision of the Treaties should rationalise the current disorderly differentiation by ending, or at least drastically reducing, the practice of opt-outs, opt-ins and exceptions for individual Member States at EU primary-law level.’
Without the opt-outs, Scotland would lose its preferable VAT status, its share of the UK rebate, the justice protections, the currency opt out and Schengen exclusion. Again, if Scotland is happy to give up on these, then the procedure can proceed apace.
Assumption 4. The currency issue could be kicked into the long grass. The SNP is currently re-examining its position. Rightly so, the last one was a disaster. However, the authors glide over the issue. To be clear, without an ‘independent’ currency (and central bank and fiscal framework) an applicant state cannot commit to joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism, a prerequisite for EU membership. You can’t commit somebody else’s currency. How long will it take to set up such a currency. Green party leader Patrick Harvie MSP estimated 10 years.
The new currency also impacts upon the deficit, another issue carefully considered by the European Commission during the application process. There seems to be a growing consensus that Scotland would have a significant deficit upon independence, with some saying the largest in the EU.
Assumption 5. Scotland would be just fine outside the UK and the EU. The authors concede that an independent Scotland would likely spend time outside the UK and the EU. The implications for Scottish business, inward investment and trade just don’t bear thinking about, yet this is barely considered an issue by the authors.
Assumption 6. There could be ‘informal’ membership discussions ahead of application. Good luck with that. The EU is a union of rules, and the prospect of them being waved for a non member, goodwill or no goodwill, are zilch.
Assumption 7. No one will stand in the way of Scotland’s membership. An application for membership could certainly be submitted within 9 months, but there are a number of stages. The Council requests that the Commission prepare an opinion on a country’s readiness for negotiations to begin. The Council must then either accept or reject the opinion (rejection is rare, but not unprecedented; the opinion on Greece was rejected).
Final point, any EU state can veto membership, or severely slow its progress. Several member states have previous on this, not least Spain. And Spain has been sending clear Scottish smoke signals of late.
All it takes is one of those assumptions to be queried, one of those assertions to be gain-said and the house of cards comes tumbling down.
This article appears in today’s Herald newspaper.