Brian Montieth: No weapons of mackerel destruction

Picture: Robert Perry

Picture: Robert Perry

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An official statement on Scotland’s strategy for EU entry offers some cause for concern, writes Brian Montieth

Sometimes the most unassuming politicians are the most dangerous. Who would have thought David Lidington, that quiet brain box, twice-over University Challenge winner, now minister for Europe at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, would be the person to bowl a googly that would so flummox the First Minister’s carefully coiffured position on an independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union?

There are bigger beasts – like Boris Johnson, David Cameron and even Alistair Darling – who have a habit of throwing all sorts of bouncers and Yorkers that the great ducker and diver himself is able to deal with comfortably at the Scottish crease. But David Lidington? Who he?

Well, he came to Edinburgh on Friday and made a fairly important speech. Getting into the detail, as one would hope and expect that a minister for Europe might, Lidington posed six questions to the SNP government and Yes campaign.

He presented all of the problems on EU membership, a Scottish currency, the Schengen Agreement on borders and passport controls, the Scottish contribution to the EU budget, Scotland’s possible negotiating strength on issues such as financial services and agriculture compared to the UK’s, and finally Scotland’s security within Europe, Nato and the wider world. These are all straightforward issues and ones that I couldprovide a column on each.

It is the level of debate we have been asking for: making probing, searching and detailed points.

Instinctively, and naturally for all our interests, the media corps wanted a response from the First Minister – how would he answer the six questions David Lidington had asked? How in particular would the other members of the European Union agree to all the things that the SNP says we can keep and it assures we can get – such as open borders with England, retaining Margaret Thatcher’s discount to the EU membership contribution and staying out of the Euro? Here’s what his spokesman – who has the authority to speak in his name and has, as of now, not been corrected – said: “Apart from anything else, do other countries want to be blocked from access to the North Sea?

“Do Spanish and Portuguese fishermen, and others for that matter, want what would become Scottish waters to be blocked off to their fisherman? I don’t think so, but if that’s what’s being suggested then it strikes me as a bit self-defeating.”

What? A newly sovereign and independent Scottish Government would take as its negotiating stance to gain entry to the EU at the best terms possible the position of mounting a blockade against entry to Scottish fishery waters by boats of members of the European Union – until it won the concessions it wanted? Spain and Portugal being mentioned in particular.

Are we to take it that the First Minister believes we should run what is tantamount to an aggressive naval operation so Scotland can bully its way into the European club that was designed to ensure peace across the continent? And this the same Alex Salmond who has also expended much political capital distancing himself from those warmongers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Will we yet see the day when Salmond’s bathtub armada of glorified tugs will trawl the North Sea looking for Spanish Weapons of Mackerel Destruction?

The cackles of incredulity and hilarity of Scottish political hacks – and the twittersphere that spread the unbelievable news – could surely be heard in the Michelin-starred seafood restaurants of Lisbon, Madrid and Barcelona (oh, how ironic). And here’s why.

Whether you believe him or not, Michael Moore, the Scotland Secretary, waded in to joke that there were no Spanish or Portuguese trawlers in Scottish waters.

Some blockade then; a bluff already called.Seeking to check this allegation, I asked Struan Stevenson MEP, a seasoned European politician and vice-chairman of the European Parliament’s committee on fisheries and he explained to me that the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch had bought up the quotas of Scottish fishermen that they needed and thus used our boats to land the catches that were destined to go to the continental markets.

What this means is that even if there are no boats from EU member states to blockade, the fish will still reach the best restaurants of Europe – unless Salmond’s three-boat flotilla keeps his fisherman friends in their harbours or forces them to dump their highly prized and expensive catches at great cost to the environment and employment in his own constituency. You could not make this herring pickle up.

But let’s not get carried away. The point is that a blockade of the North Sea can only be mounted against members of the European Union by Scotland if it is outside the EU – no trade blockades are permissible by member nations against each other. Such actions are highly frowned upon, subject to punishment including heavy fines paid for by the taxpayer – and hardly the position to be taken by a nation wishing to join. In fact, in one simple soundbite the spokesman had confirmed what we have known all along – that Scotland will be outside the EU looking in, waiting to join.

Such a bellicose attitude would prolong entry – not help it.

The statement told us that the SNP has not thought through its negotiating position with 450-odd days before a referendum and is already talking about bullying other states.

It also told us that it has complete ignorance of how North Sea fishing is conducted – and it blew the gaffe on Alex Salmond as the great friend of the Catalans, our Scandinavian neighbours and the peace-loving world.

David Lidington must have laughed all the way back to Aylesbury. What a catch for Better Together! Who says the Tories have nothing to say in the debate?

The day David Lidington comes back to Scotland and asks more questions is not a day too soon.

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