Scott Macnab: Between a rock and a hard place

Scotlands strong support for Remain leaves it facing some stark choices if it is to retain links with the EU. Picture: PA
Scotlands strong support for Remain leaves it facing some stark choices if it is to retain links with the EU. Picture: PA
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Scotland faces uncertainty and increased instability whichever route it decides to go down, writes Scott Macnab

When Scotland was cold shouldered by EU leaders at the height of the independence campaign two years ago, the threat of encouraging breakaway nationalist movements was at the heart of concerns. Member states like Spain, Belgium, France and Italy had their own nationalist movements to deal with and feared these would only thrive if the EU made Scotland’s departure from the UK easy. As Nicola Sturgeon now seeks a deal to secure Scotland’s place in the EU after the dramatic Brexit vote, has sentiment in Brussels changed?

The Nationalist MEP Alyn Smith received a standing ovation in the European Parliament this week as he appealed for European leaders to back Scotland’s case to remain in the European bloc. And with the shifting political narrative of recent days, Scotland staying in the EU increasingly seems the “safe, stable” option against the turmoil engulfing the UK. In the European context at least, Scotland is no longer a “breakaway” state – it wants to stay. The seething anger in Brussels about the UK vote was all to evident as Ukip leader Nigel Farage was jeered by MEPs yesterday. EC President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU Parliament chief Martin Schultz have already agreed to talks with the First Minister about the prospect of a stand-alone Scottish deal, a marked shift in approach from their predecessors who dismissed Scotland’s EU hopes as “near impossible” two years ago.

But there are still huge question marks hanging over exactly how an accommodation, short of independence, could be reached with Scotland. The First Minister’s aim appears to be securing a quasi-associate membership for Scotland of the European bloc. The SNP had previously suggested Article 48 of the EU constitution could be triggered which would see the key treaties revised to accommodate Scotland’s position and the transition would be seamless. This was under independence, though, and would have required approval of all of the other 28 member states. And its hard to see how this won’t mean fundamental changes to aspects of our current deal with Brussels.

An obvious question hangs over the contributions to EU budgets. Scotland can hardly be expected to reap the benefits that comes from being a member of the bloc without paying its dues. The current UK rebate will be lost. It was estimated an independent Scotland would have had to contribute €12.9 billion – about £10.7bn in current rates – over the 2014-16 period. This is about £1.5bn a year. A report by the respected economist John McLaren yesterday suggested Scotland could end up as a net contributor to the EU at a time of stinging austerity. New member states are required to sign up to joining the euro, even though this can be indefinitely shelved in practice. And would Scotland be able to remain part of the lucrative common agricultural policy (CAP)? Farmers had been desperate to secure a Remain vote in last week’s referendum to stay part of the system of farming subsidies amid growing concerns that a stand-alone UK system could not match the lavish generosity of CAP which has come under fire throughout its history for leading to the creation of butter and wine “mountains”.

One group of Scots celebrating on Friday morning was the fishing fleet. Withdrawal from the EU would mean Scotland gains control over it extensive fishing waters – about 60 per cent of UK fishing opportunities – and the ability to restrict foreign trawlers muscling in. Brexit spells bonanza for a fleet largely based in the north of Scotland. But this may well be sacrificed by Ms Sturgeon to secure Scotland’s relationship with the EU. And what clout would Scotland have in the annual powderkeg negotiations under the Common Fisheries Policy? Discussions on quota limits and days at sea are always contentious and although Scotland would be involved, it’s voting influence is likely to be sorely diminished.

Ms Sturgeon is determined to remain part of the EU single market and the £10bn of annual trade this brings. This will also inevitably mean free movement of labour, which the Leave campaign were so clear about restricting in the rest of the UK in the referendum. Its hard to see how this could then avoid the creation of a border between Scotland and the rest of the UK. But such a scenario then raises questions about Scotland’s ability to remain part of the single UK market – which is of course still Scotland’s biggest commercial partner with £48.5bn of annual trade. Indeed Scotland’s opt-out from the Schengen free travel area as part of the UK may have to end under a new relationship with the EU. This is among the crucial EU acquis – the body of EU law and practice – that new members must meet. Scotland does meet most as a member for the past 40 years – but not all.

The UK has opt-outs on a number justice and home affairs issues and Scotland may be forced to sign up to these, even as an associate EU member. This would require major changes to the legal system as much jurisdiction is ceded to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. And approval for any new deal which is reached will again be at the mercy of all 27 member states. With many newer east European countries said to be anxious about the prospect, Ms Sturgeon’s aspirations for a Scottish associate member status of the EU already appear on shaky ground.

As reality bites in the months ahead, it looks like Scottish independence may be the only way back into the EU. But such a scenario leaves every likelihood of having to re-apply as a new member to join the Brussels bloc, which may take years. The choice facing Scots in the months ahead is a stark one. On the one hand, instability as part of the UK which has been plunged into tumult after Brexit. On the other, the uncertainty of independence outside both unions and being at the mercy of 27 EU states, all driven by conflicting interests and agendas, as we plead for a speedy return to the Brussels club.