Joining EFTA or the EEA is the wrong option for Scotland

The next few weeks and months are going to be the Brexit endgame, and we need to keep our eyes on the prize and not be distracted by the industrial scale amounts of chaff the opposition are going to throw out.

Scotland’s best future will come with independence, and the best route to that future is to ensure that EU membership is front and centre of our proposition.  Short of that, stopping Brexit for the whole of the UK is in our interests, but in this column I’ll try to pin down some of the myths that some folk seem to be keen on spreading about Scotland and the EU.

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First published in The National, 30 August 2018

Ireland proves to the world what independence in Europe is: solidarity with the most advanced peace project in the world, support from 26 other countries, and a bigger stage on which to shine.  So does Denmark, so does Sweden, so do all the rest.

We want to be independent not to pretend we can be separate or apart, but to join things as ourselves, making our own decisions at home and working with our friends and neighbours across our continent to be that voice for progress in the world.  That means that there’s limits on sovereignty - what club doesn’t have rules? - but we are and will be involved at every stage of their formulation.

There are, of course, other futures, and there are those who oppose EU membership.  But look at the EU referendum result, look at subsequent polls.  The prospect of losing our EU rights against our will has moved a lot of people from No last time to, if not Yes, certainly “persuade me” right now.  Talk of us going flaky on EU membership is uniquely off-putting for these folk, we need to avoid loose talk.

Also, in Brussels and across the continent, many of the folks who did not get us in 2014 assuredly get us now.  Many in Brussels are instinctively distrustful of nationalism, don’t like the idea of creating borders, and see themselves in the business of eliminating borders, not creating them.  But that has changed. You saw the reaction to my speech after the referendum, when the MEPs saw what we mean when we talk about independence.  Internationalist.  Cooperative.  Ecological.  Fair.  A Scotland that wants to be independent, and European.

The very hour and day that Brexit, if it does, takes effect then the arguments about turning Brexit around are over.  The reality changes, and so must our argument.  Once the clock runs out on Article 50 there’s no easy way back to the EU for the UK, the Brexiters know this.  The EU will bin all the rebates, opt-outs and special deals the UK has and any future application will be from scratch, with no goodwill for the UK round the table assuming the UK wanted to rejoin anyway.

But Scotland will be in a different place altogether.  We’re the good guys.  We’ve tried our hardest to find solutions, to see them trashed at every turn by a government whose incompetence is only matched by its ignorance of EU and Scottish politics.  London will loose the solidarity (yes, believe it or not they can still call on solidarity as an EU member) that it presently enjoys but barely realises, and various EU voices will be a lot more vocal about our prospects.  If they’re hearing about us going flaky in our commitment to EU membership that support will be thrown away.

There are of course other options for Scotland’s future, and I believe in the total sovereignty of the people of Scotland to choose what is best for us.  But I’ve spent a lot of time analysing what’s best for us and it is EU membership.  Some in our movement seem to regard the EEA/EFTA options as a convenient and happy middle ground between a hard Brexit and EU membership.  It categorically is not and we cannot afford that kind of complacency and lack of judgement - let's leave that to the Brexiters.

Norway and Iceland are part of the EEA, and Switzerland in EFTA as is their right.  But both are poor options for Scotland if we’re serious about Scottish democracy and sovereignty.  There might be other fantasy options that some folk seem to think might exist - but we’ve already seen where deluded have your cake and eat it philosophy has got the UK Brexiters, I think we owe it to the people of Scotland to not deal in fantasy.

EEA and EFTA membership solve us no problems, and answer us no questions, that EU membership does not.  They mean that Scotland would in every sense be a rule taker, and yet have no say in the formulation of those rules.  We’ll also pay in significantly more per head to the EU budget than we do now, but have no say in where it goes and limited opportunity to encourage Scottish organisations to access it as we now can.

They are also not easy options, you can’t just join EFTA in a lazy afternoon.  Both would need a tortuous accession process and either will throw up a whole can of worms with no appetite or enthusiasm in Brussels to encourage yet more sniffy arms length EU status from bits of these islands.  Maintaining EU membership, by contrast, is a lot easier because we’re already there, albeit by virtue of UK membership, and depending on when we’re talking about will not have diverged much.

Joining the EU as an independent Scotland will be our most straightforward negotiation because we’re already there so the logistics are a lot simpler than any other option.  Nothing of course is automatic, and there are indeed parts we would not want to simply cut and paste like fisheries legislation or state aid rules, but these are as nothing compared to the disadvantages of trying to join EFTA or EEA from scratch.

I’m all for debate, and I’m all about testing all options.  But let us all be realistic, and informed, about what our options are.  To maintain the greatest support at home, and elsewhere, for independence, EU membership is our best option.  By a country kilometre.