Following the latest round of talks on Brexit between devolved administrations and the UK Government, Michael Russell said full membership of the single market was only possible by remaining in the EU, and that seeking access on the same terms as Norway was the “next best thing”.
And in a hint that talks could lead to agreement on a common position on single market access, Scottish Secretary David Mundell said Mr Russell’s comments meant the two governments were “much more on the same page”.
However, Scottish Government sources denied it had altered its position or changed its objectives.
On a recent visit to Ireland, Nicola Sturgeon said she would “seek continued membership of the European single market” after Brexit, and last month told a committee of MSPs she wanted “membership of the single market, not some vague access to the single market”.
Emerging from yesterday’s meeting at Westminster, Mr Russell said: “The language is important. Membership of the single market is to do with being a member of the EU.
“That’s clearly not going to happen unless there’s a major change of heart.”
He added: “The issue we are now addressing is how we can continue to observe the four freedoms, how we can be part of that like the Norwegians, that is the next best thing.”
Describing the comments as “significant”, Mr Mundell said: “We’ve had clarification from the Scottish Government that their priority is access to the single market.
“There has been a lot of confusion in recent weeks about what membership meant, compared with access, and I think Michael has from my perspective and the committee’s perspective clarified that.
“That’s a positive because it means that we’re much more on the same page.”
Speculation that a Norway-style model could emerge as the Scottish Government’s preferred Brexit outcome has grown as ministers prepare to present a set of options for Scotland’s future relationship with the EU.
Former First Minister Alex Salmond MP last month travelled to the headquarters of the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) in Geneva to meet with ministers from non-EU countries who trade within the single market.
Mr Russell conceded that a Norway-style deal was “not as good as being a member” because it would mean observing single market rules with little input in the decision-making process.
He said: “Norway and Iceland, and Switzerland through another set of arrangements, are members in that way. What they lack is a decision making role. I think that’s a weakness, but to have that, you have to remain as a member of the EU. There’s no other way.”
He added: “In the hierarchy of what we want, the first is that the UK should still be within the EU. The second one is not being outside the single market, observing the four freedoms for the UK is the next one.
“If the UK is not going to do that, then it has to be Scotland observing them.”
Talks yesterday also made progress on the future of the UK’s cooperation with Europe on justice and security, Mr Mundell said.
Before going meeting with UK ministers yesterday, Mr Russell told a committee of MPs that freedom of movement, one of the four freedoms that underpin the single market, was “most important” to Scotland. He warned that immigration is the only way to maintain a “sustainable economic population”, particularly in rural areas.
Last night Mr Mundell denied fresh reports that ministers are considering a deal to allow a second independence referendum with a ‘sunset clause’ attached, requiring the Scottish Government to hold the vote after the UK has left the EU.