Tom Harris: Holyrood or EU judges in Luxembourg? You choose

IN THE second of our series of key voices in the debate over Scotland's future, Tom Harris explains how he became a convert to Brexit

Boris Johnson promotes arguments for leaving, which could include powers to charge EU students at Scots universities and to set fisheries policy. Picture: PA

Most Scots have the same approach to our membership of the European Union as I did until the start of this year: a casual acceptance of it as a fact of life, something not to get too exercised about. And after all, if our political leaders are so unequivocal about the benefits of membership, surely they know best?

My own casual acceptance came to an end when David Cameron returned from his “negotiations” in Brussels, declaring that he had achieved all he had set out to do in redefining the UK’s relationship with the EU.

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Of course, he had done nothing of the kind. The fact that the Remain camp never even mention Cameron’s “deal” highlights the fact. But it was this event that, more than anything else, turned me from a casual Remain supporter to a determined Leave one.

As an MP I knew that things had to change; my view was always consistently that I would be happy for us to remain in a reformed EU, provided the reforms were real and permanent. Control over our borders was essential, I knew. The impact of unlimited immigration from the other 27 EU nations would, I knew, be deeply damaging to working class areas in Scotland.

Another area Cameron claimed to want reform was in reversing the convention that EU law trumped UK law. It was surely an unshakeable democratic principle that those who make the law should be directly accountable to those that the laws affect.

Thirdly, we needed the freedom to construct our own trade agreements with non-EU countries, a freedom taken for granted by 165 of the 193 countries represented at the United Nations.

Cameron appeared to agree, in advance of his negotiations, with all three of these fairly modest, sensible aims.

And then he returned home with what Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg rather generously described as “thin gruel” – a hotch potch of minor changes, none of which would be enforced through treaty change (another commitment the Prime Minister quietly dropped).

It wasn’t just his claim that these changes were somehow significant that angered me – it was his insulting belief that we would believe him.

And now I find myself heading the campaign to persuade Scottish voters to take the same path as I did, from Remain to Leave.

We are constantly told that support for the EU is greater in Scotland than in other parts of the UK, and polls bear this out. However I believe that support, although wide, is very, very shallow. Scotland, which spent a fair portion of its time in the last decade debating Scottish independence, has hardly had the time to turn its attention to the EU. And after all isn’t leaving the EU a purely Tory obsession?

Whatever the virtual unanimity and conformity of our political leaders’ views on EU membership, significant chunks of each party’s support will be voting to leave on June 23. Rather than dismissing such people (as the Remain camp has done) as “unbalanced” or “extreme”, we should instead consider the case – particularly the Scottish case – for voting to leave.

Immigration has been tolerated and even welcomed in the decades since the end of the Second World War because our citizens understand that it has brought economic prosperity. They have also been assured that it has always been managed and limited. All the main parties, even today, claim this to be their position.

Yet by definition, immigration from EU countries cannot be managed or limited. We cannot fill the skills gap in our economy by encouraging those with particular experience or qualifications to come here while discouraging others. Although that would be an evidently sensible policy to pursue, it would be illegal to do so – at least as far as the EU is concerned.

That reality has had a deeply negative impact on countries beyond the EU. If you’re an English-speaking surgeon with a medical degree from a university in India, or a skilled technician from China, you undoubtedly have the kind of skills Scotland and UK desperately need. Unfortunately, you will have to get in line behind any EU citizen.

The Remain camp talk very little of immigration, probably because they find the situation as described above difficult to defend. They will claim it’s unhelpful even to raise it as an issue, warning that such arguments risk sparking racist or xenophobic sentiments.

It is not racist or xenophobic to be concerned about the impact on services or schools of an influx of new arrivals, particularly if those new arrivals cannot speak English. In fact it is entirely sensible to seek answers to the questions about what new housing and school places are to be provided for the three million people the Treasury expect to be living here by 2030.

Scotland’s universities have welcomed many EU students to our shores, and they have made a vital, positive contribution to our country. They have also cost us in terms of free tuition. It is illegal, under EU law, to deny free tuition to any student from anywhere in the EU (apart from England, apparently). Free tuition has meant that universities have to limit the number of “funded” places. The legal necessity of applying entry criteria equally to Scottish and EU applicants has led to a reduction in the number of Scottish students studying at Scottish universities, while the number of EU students studying here has more than doubled in the last ten years.

In this area, the advantages of our leaving the EU are obvious: EU students would still be welcomed, of course. But we would be able to treat them exactly as we treat English students, and oblige them to pay for the tuition that is currently funded by the generous Scottish tax-payer. We could also, if we wished, prioritise Scottish applicants in a way that is currently illegal under EU law.

Leaving the EU would also mean new powers for Holyrood. Powers currently wielded by Brussels in areas such as fishing, agriculture, social policy and the environment, would be devolved to Holyrood. There would be no need for further commissions or conventions or even Acts of Parliament at Westminster: if any policy area is not already listed as “Reserved” in the Scotland Act, it automatically and by default comes to Edinburgh.

And who in Scotland genuinely believes that fisheries policy, with all its absurd waste and red tape, is better run from Brussels than from Holyrood?

In 2011, the SNP achieved an as yet unmatched victory by winning a majority of seats at Holyrood. Its manifesto included a commitment to introduce minimum pricing of alcohol. The merits of the policy are irrelevant: any democrat will acknowledge that a policy that receives the support of a majority of our democratically elected MSPs should become law.

As members of the EU, however, we cannot assume that. Just as Nicola Sturgeon’s pre-election commitment to denying public contracts to tax-evading companies would not be tolerated by our EU Commission overlords, so the policy on minimum pricing of alcohol was rejected by the European Court of Justice.

Who runs Scotland? Holyrood or European judges sitting in Luxembourg? On June 23 Scottish voters will make their choice.

Leave the EU and we won’t be able to trade, we are warned. And yet outside the EU, Britain, the world’s fifth biggest economy, would also be the EU’s single biggest overseas customer, buying more from EU members states than we sell. Countries all over the world already sell goods into the EU’s so-called “single market” without being a member of it. Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU and which has absolutely no wish to become one, sells more into the EU per capita than the UK.

But the price we have to pay for membership of the EU – not just the £1.55 billion Scots give to the EU every year, but the price in terms of political integration and submission to EU law – is simply too great to be of any benefit to us.

• Tom Harris is director of Vote Leave in Scotland

Scottish Vote Leave – Fact Box

• If the UK leaves the EU, important powers currently wielded by the European Commission will be devolved to Holyrood.

• Scotland’s contribution to the EU budget is £30 million a week, or £1.55 billion a year, enough to hire 1,400 new nurses.

• Freedom of movement within the EU means 500 million citizens of 27 countries have right of residency in the UK.

• Scots spend £80m a year providing free tuition to EU students. Outside the EU, we could charge them the same as any other overseas student, providing a major cash injection of Scottish universities.

• The European Court of Justice has the power to overrule laws created by our elected politicians, like minimum pricing of alcohol, which had the support of a large majority of MSPs.

• Just 15 per cent of Scotland’s exports go to the EU.

• Only five per cent of Scottish businesses export to the EU, but 100 per cent of businesses must obey EU regulations.

• As an EU member it is illegal for the UK to have its own trade deals with third countries.