David Martin: No way back to the European Union in my lifetime

David Martin was a leading voice in the European Parliament on trade. Photograph: EU
David Martin was a leading voice in the European Parliament on trade. Photograph: EU
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The UK’s longest-serving MEP has said the country will not rejoin the EU in his lifetime – and may never return to the bloc.

David Martin, who represented Scotland in the European Parliament from 1984 to 2019, said that even if a pro-EU government was elected, the UK’s favourable membership terms would not be offered in new accession talks, making it politically impossible to rejoin.

The former Labour MEP, who lost his seat in the party’s disastrous final EU election result last year, also warned that the case for allowing a second Scottish independence referendum in the wake of Brexit was “almost unquestionable”.

“There is no going back, and I think we are now, for at least the rest of my life and possibly forever, a third country as far as the European Union is concerned,” Martin told Scotland on Sunday.

“I don’t think anybody could kid themselves that there’s a quick way back in. Once you’re out, you’re out, and all the benefits, if they were benefits – of not being part of the euro, having a budget rebate, not being part of Schengen – none of these things will we get again if we were to renegotiate.

“So I think even if there’s a change of government in five years’ time with a more pro-European view, membership is not going to be negotiated, so that’s gone.”

Martin was one of the leading voices in the European Parliament on trade, serving as the lead representative for the Socialist & Democratic party group on the International Trade Committee, and acting as the parliament’s rapporteur on the EU-Singapore trade deal, which came into force at the end of last year.

“Singapore took nine years from start to finish to negotiate a trade deal,” he said. “That was a fairly straightforward trade deal. It’s naive in the extreme to think that the UK can do it in nine months.

“My fear is we’re heading for a series of many deals to, as it were, literally keep the planes flying between Britain and Europe, to keep goods moving.”

Martin said an agreement on foreign policy cooperation could be struck quickly, predicting that if Donald Trump remains in the White House, “maybe the UK and the EU will actually be closer on foreign policy issues and multilateral institutions like the WTO than they will be to America”.

But he added: “I think the business side, the trade side is looking extremely, extremely negative… if there are a series of small trade deals, actually the momentum in terms of getting a big deal will disappear and it could be a long time, if ever, before you get a deal.”

Rather than the trade deal between Brussels and Canada, which Boris Johnson has said is his preferred model, Martin compared the situation facing the UK – which has just 11 months to negotiate its future relationship with the EU before the end of the transition phase in December 2020 – to the collapsed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and Washington.

“There were a number of issues that the EU and the US could have signed off on in relation to bits of TTIP. Neither side wanted to do that because they thought if you took the low hanging fruit, the incentive to get the bigger deal would disappear… I think the exact same argument applies with a UK-EU deal.”

Martin added: “No deal in a pure sense was never a possibility in relation to Brexit. No deal in terms of trade is a possibility because some things have to happen if there’s not going to be mutually assured destruction.

“But once these essentials happen, as I say, the motivation to carry on negotiating could diminish.”

The UK government insists there will be “no alignment” with European trade regulations as part of a deal with Brussels, setting up a clash with the EU over its calls for a level playing field.

Martin predicted Brussels’ demands would be “completely unacceptable” to the UK, making a comprehensive trade deal impossible.

“Manufacturing, which has already been in trouble in the UK, will continue to decline, will continue to have to compete with one arm tied behind its back if it doesn’t have full and free access to its largest market,” he said, adding that the downturn in investment since 2016 will begin to be felt over the next three years as British factory floors find themselves less efficient than European rivals.

As an MEP, Martin helped develop the EU’s regional policy which saw billions of pounds invested in rapidly deindustrialised areas of Scotland, northern England and Wales. Consultation on a replacement for EU Structural Funds is more than a year overdue.

“Within about six weeks of me being elected in 1984, West Lothian had real unemployment of almost 50 per cent because British Leyland left, Plessey left, Levi Jeans left, Polkemmet Colliery left, the mining jobs left, and the place was decimated.

“The British government’s basic attitude was, the market will take care of this and will regenerate it,” Martin recalls.

“It was the European Union that invested millions in the former coalfield areas, and regenerated those coalfield areas.

“If you look around places that are very close to Edinburgh, like Newtongrange and Bonnyrigg and parts of Midlothian, villages could have literally died if it hadn’t been for the investment that came from the European Union.”

UK services will also struggle when competing for contracts in the EU if there isn’t an agreement on free movement, because shifting staff to the continent will become more costly and difficult, Martin warned.

He said there was a risk to international cultural events like the Edinburgh festivals through increased immigration bureaucracy.

And with opposition parties sounding the alarm over the future of the Erasmus student exchange programme, and EU students facing the possibility of having to pay tuition fees in Scotland in future, Martin added: “I’m not sure how some of our universities can continue to thrive, actually. I think it’d be a very serious blow to our universities.”

With the next year set to be dominated by demands for a second Scottish independence referendum, Martin said the UK “needs to change the way in which it respects the views of the nations” if it is to survive.

“My view has been for a while, leaving the EU is a fundamental change of circumstances and the 
once-in-a-generation argument does not apply in that situation, because we are in a different ballgame,” he said.

“I’m still in the position where, because there are so many uncertainties, I have no idea what I would do in such a referendum. But the right to hold it and to have that national debate is now almost unquestionable.”