Scott Macnab: Scotland torn between two unions

Nicola Sturgeon's post-Brexit strategy puts Scotland's place in the UK in doubt again, writes Scott Macnab

Plans to keep Scotland in the single market with free movement of people would lead to a hard border in the UK, writes Scott Macnab. Picture: Ian Rutherford

An understandable sense of indignance and even grievance hung over Nicola Sturgeon’s launch of her strategy to safeguard Scotland’s relations with the EU yesterday. Nationalists rightly feel they’ve been sold a pup on the entire Brexit affair. Two years ago the First Minister was in the trenches as the independence referendum reached a crescendo and Scotland’s place in Europe was among the key battlegrounds. EU chiefs had made it clear that Scotland would find itself outside the Brussels bloc and forced to reapply to become a member state. But that’s not how the No campaign spun the message.

Instead, Scots were told, in stark terms, that the only way to secure Scotland’s place in the EU was to vote No - and stay in the UK. And the majority did. Fast-forward two years and the country finds itself being ejected from the EU - despite the majority of Scots voting to Remain. So Ms Sturgeon is on strong ground as she grapples to find some way to secure Scotland’s place at the heart of the EU.

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But its increasingly hard to see how such an arrangement can be delivered in practice. And the prospect of Scots voting for independence from the UK in favour of alliance with Brussels increasingly seems a stretch. Former First Minister Alex Salmond was extolling Scotland’s centuries-old links with Europe at the weekend, which predate the current political union with England in 1707. The famous “Auld Alliance” between Scotland and France stemmed from a 13th century military agreement between the countries to assist each other in the event of invasion by England, and it was renewed regularly over the next 250 years. Scots links with trading ports in the lowland countries, like Bruges and Rotterdam, were also well established by the 17th century.

Nicola Sturgeon is now seeking to continue these links in the post-Brexit European landscape with a series of options set out yesterday. These would see Scotland adopt a “differentiated” trading deal from the UK which is likely to leave the EU single market. Scotland would remain in the European Economic Area, perhaps as part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), the so-called Norway solution. Alternately, Scotland could simply have a direct relationship with the EEA as part of the UK or even a Finnish-style associate membership status of EFTA. The “technical, legal and political complexities and challenges” of such an arrangement are acknowledged.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the Scottish Government’s desire to retain free movement with other EU states while this comes to an end elsewhere in the UK. Concerns over immigration were the driving factor behind the “out” vote south of the border. So above all, this is the issue where UK ministers like David Davis and Boris Johnson are likely to take a hardline in Brexit negotiations. The idea that some kind of de facto arrangement can be reached where Scotland enjoys open borders with the rest of the EU, but the UK does not, just seems fanciful. Even with the new powers over immigration which Nicola Sturgeon wants to see devolved, it’s hard to see how such an arrangement can be reached with mainland Europe without a border being created between Scotland and the UK.

The contributions Scotland will have to make are also unclear, with yesterday’s document stating they will be a matter for negotiation. But Norway must pay more than £300 million a year into EU coffers in order to secure such free market access and participation in areas like research. This may only amount to one per cent of Scotland’s devolved budget but it comes at a time of ongoing austerity and local services facing the axe again. Perhaps the more pressing question is how keen EU leaders will be, when it comes to the crunch, to accommodate such a deal for Scotland. EC President Jean-Claude Juncker may have been quick to proclaim that Scotland deserves a “hearing” after a meeting with Mr Salmond recently, but the reality is that the clout in the EU lies with member states. There’s every likelihood that Scotland would require majority support for a stand-alone arrangement and with nations like Spain and Belgium grappling with their own separatists movements, they won’t be keen to give any support to the nationalist uprising in Scotland. Madrid is particularly hostile, given the links which have emerged in recent years between the SNP and the breakaway movement in Catalonia.

If Scotland’s pleas are ignored by Westminster, then Ms Sturgeon has warned that a second referendum is firmly on the cards - and Mr Salmond insisted Scots are ready to vote Yes if the question is posed again. With support for independence still in the mid-40 per cent range the outcome may still be too close to call. But as realpolitik sets in, Scots will be faced with a hard-headed economic decision once again.

The UK single market is worth five times as much - about £50 billion a year - to Scots exporters compared to the EU. However dire the long-term impact of leaving the EU single market might be, and the tens of thousands of jobs which could go, the loss of access to the UK single market would be even worse. And of course more Scots voted to stay in the UK in 2014 than voted to remain in the EU earlier this year. Has public opinion really changed so much in that short time?

Perhaps this is why Ms Sturgeon has turned down the independence rhetoric for the moment. Her priority in the years ahead may be the other significant aspect of her Brexit strategy yesterday which sets out calls for Holyrood to be handed a range of new powers. Areas like agricultural and fishing were expected, but Ms Sturgeon has extend this remit to immigration, import and expert controls, business regulations, company law, financial services, employment law, health and safety and many more. Its an exhaustive list and unlikely to be fully met. But as former health secretary Alex Neil, a pro-Brexiteer, stated recently, there is now the chance to seize sweeping new controls and make Holyrood the powerhouse Parliament which the Nationalists feel was missed after the referendum.