WE ARE now at the stage of the referendum campaign where, probably every weekend, and possibly midweek too, there will be a new opinion poll of some sort or other telling us about the mood swings of the Scottish people as they give greater thought to the arguments for and against Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. Some people might change their opinion when they hear something they don’t like, some detail they hadn’t quite appreciated, while others that are undecided begin to take a firmer view.
As the two campaign teams, the Scottish Government and the opposition parties, seek to influence voters and build up a momentum in their favour, they will revisit some of the issues already discussed last year in the hope that they find a silver bullet that makes their case unbeatable. One of those areas is undoubtedly going to be Scotland’s future relationship with the European Union. The First Minister did himself no favours last year when he claimed to have legal opinion telling us all that Scotland’s automatic and continuing membership of the EU was assured, but refused to release it, suggesting that, like all such advice, it should stay confidential – only for it to be revealed later by his deputy Nicola Sturgeon that no such advice did in fact exist.
This grubby little episode was made worse when the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso made it explicit that Scotland would have to apply as a new member and not simply continue in membership and inherit all the treaty agreements and derogations that define the UK’s current membership.
Still, for all this vital clarification, no-one seriously believed that the EU would not want Scotland to become a member. The real question is what the terms of the membership would be, including the increased entry fee without Margaret Thatcher’s Fontainebleau discount and the treaty clauses that UK governments of all hues have – with SNP support – previously worked hard to reject now being thrust upon us, possibly resulting in us having border controls or different, more costly employment conditions.
When pressed in an interview recently, President Barroso went further and explained that Scotland’s membership might be difficult or even impossible if some members states did not agree to the terms, citing the example of Kosovo’s membership being vetoed not just by Spain but also Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia.
I believe the position of Barroso was not bluster or scaremongering but a robust attempt to mark out the realities of how difficult the EU negotiations will be: he was dampening the over-optimistic expectations raised by Alex Salmond who has an interest in suggesting membership will be seamless. Scottish EU membership will come at a price – like all memberships. It’s not a new position, by the way, his predecessor Romano Prodi said the same, and the Council President, Herman Van Rompuy, has now backed Barroso up. Even the former EU Commission Director General Jim Currie, who favours Scotland’s EU membership, has said “it would involve inevitable negations that would be rather tough”.
We can be certain, then, that an independent Scotland will apply for EU membership and, to ensure it gets in and there are no vetoes, has to concede generous terms. By definition, this means that Scotland’s membership will be more costly and more restrictive than that of the UK with its various derogations, discounts and treaty exclusions.
One such example surfaced at the weekend when Donato Raponi, head of the EC taxation department, explained that once an accession treaty is agreed, it is “no longer possible for a member state to introduce special VAT rates. The member state must apply the EU rules.” The UK enjoys zero per cent VAT in 54 areas because of a longstanding agreement, an agreement that will fall once Scotland breaks away from the UK. The chances of winning back those terms must be slim, if they exist at all, affecting the cost of books, equipment for the disabled, children’s clothes, shipbuilding and aircraft repair.
Now, let’s also accept that Salmond is right and that the UK in the end concedes a currency union. It, too, will still come at a price. Never mind the price laid out by Osborne, Balls and Alexander; Governor Carney laid out the technical requirements that include the ceding of sovereignty to the Bank of England and Westminster and, tellingly, the nationalists have not challenged these assertions.
We therefore arrive at the strong possibility – that is entirely plausible – that an independent Scotland will be under greater control and scrutiny from the EU and Westminster than it is now, incurring greater costs, while having less clout; than it will be if it stayed in the UK under existing arrangements. That’s without even considering the further devolution that comes after the Scotland Act 2012 kicks in during 2015-16 and if further fiscal powers are devolved.
Irrespective of how Scots feel about the current terms of EU membership, we also know from opinion polling that a majority of two to one want a referendum on EU membership – but that it has been ruled out by the SNP if Scotland votes for independence, even on the new (far poorer) terms Salmond and Sturgeon will have to negotiate.
Now, if that is not enough to make those thinking of voting Yes think again, then consider this scenario.
Independent Scotland negotiates its membership of the EU (undoubtedly on poorer terms than currently exist) but refuses to grant the Scottish people a say in EU membership. Meanwhile, the UK moves to having its own referendum on “improved terms” negotiated by Cameron (or even Miliband who may yet adopt this approach) and these are accepted by the British people. Thus, Scotland would have even worse membership terms than the rest of the UK – it would be even less “independent” than the UK vis-a-vis the European Union.
Or, after the UK EU referendum, the new terms are rejected and the UK leaves the EU – achieving complete sovereign independence.
In either scenario, whether in or out of the EU, the UK will have let its people decide and be more “independent” of the EU than Scotland while continuing to oversee Scotland’s finances.
The conclusion is simple, if ironic. To gain the greatest degree of independence for Scotland, whether inside or outside the EU, people should vote No, such is the SNP’s version of independence.