Opinion

EU evangelists need to provide answers

by | 28 Jan 2022

The 'could' in 'Scotland could join the EU in five years after independence' bears an awful lot of weight. Can it take it? Advocates should provide the information to let us find out.

One of the results of the polarisation resulting from the Brexit referendum is that a proportion of actors on both sides have reached a degree of evangelism over the issue which is close to a religion. Both have a tendency to skip over tricky issues by mumbling and hoping you won’t notice.

Just to set the context again, I was the generation which saw the emergence of the European Union as a genuinely utopian agenda, was enthused as a student when it happened and voted Remain.

But I also have decades of watching it in reality and it is anything but utopian in operation. The single market is hard-core neoliberalism and as a result lots of the other, better things about the EU becomes polluted by this. (State aid, procurement and competition laws are heavily rigged against public and democratic action in favour of corporate dominance.)

I am absolutely not fundamentally opposed to the EU – but we’re out and so the question is not whether I would leave the EU but whether I would join it again as it is from where we are. That isn’t a religious question but a practical one.

This issue raised its head again this week because of comments made by Kirsty Hughes at an internal SNP meeting. The National summarised them as ‘an independent Scotland could rejoin the EU in five years’.

I like and respect Kirsty, but this is a big decision so the words which support that claim must be scrutinised carefully. Can they withstand the scrutiny?

Yes they can – but an awful lot rests on the ‘could’. As in ‘Robin McAlpine could buy a Caribbean Island in under 24 hours (if he can find one for sale and can source many millions of pounds he doesn’t currently have and all the legal work is done in advance)’.

Common Weal has already done some basic work on this as part of the How To Start A New Country project and absolutely, under the rules of accession to the European Union you really can go from ‘not a member’ to ‘a member’ in five years.

The EU might give us all kinds of exemptions – but that is a bucket-load of optimism on which to gamble an independence referendum

So let’s look at some of the ‘could’ conditions. Some are structural; for example, the rules require you to be able to harmonise your monetary conditions with the rules of the EU. That means you need a central bank which has the ability to regulate a currency. And you need a bit of a track record to demonstrate that you can do that.

Sterlingisation makes that impossible so the implication is that we can’t really apply to join until we have had a currency operating for a few years and then you can start something like a five year process.

Similarly there are a range of statutory regulatory agencies which you must have in place before you can join and there are 17 of them. Whether you could share those with a non-EU nation (i.e. the UK), whether they could be set up fast enough or whether exemptions are possible just isn’t something you can state confidently in advance.

And that is not even to mention the impact it has on the Scotland/England border. We will be required to create what the Remainers chose to call a ‘hard border’ with England. That’s very much a weak point for persuading certain switherers.

Then there are policy issues. Do we want to impose five per cent VAT on clothing? Do we want to commit to the Euro? Do we want to hand back fishing and agriculture policy? What is the impact of these? These need to be modelled and considered.

But above all there are fiscal considerations. Scotland as an independent country starts off with the finances and economy of a region, not an established country. There is no reason at all that Scotland cannot become an economy which would be capable of meeting the fiscal rules for EU accession without pain.

But there are very, very big reasons to fear that this is not the case within five years of independence day. My assessment is that meeting the EU’s existing criteria in that timescale would result in brutal cuts to public services.

I might be wrong, the EU might give us all kinds of exemptions and leeway, a calm assessment of all of this might make clear that rejoining is a ‘no brainer’.

But if this work has been done I certainly haven’t seen it and what I have heard is mostly the sound of mumbling when people race past comments like ‘the EU loves us and accommodation will be made’.

That is a bucket-load of optimism on which to gamble an independence referendum. We already know for sure that Spain will absolutely not under any circumstances do anything other than try to make our life hard during that referendum. (I have no doubt it would accept Scotland as a member eventually but it will not provide us gifts by doing so in advance.)

And you can be certain that the other side will do the calculations and you can be absolutely certain that we will not get away with mumbling our way through our answers.

My guess? To do all of what needs to get done to get into the EU without great pain? Probably not less than ten years.

I have a simple formulation I believe in strongly. We can join EFTA very quickly. No, that isn’t Single Market membership but it gives us defined access to the Single Market (like Iceland). And it signals that we are not isolationist.

From there we can make the decision to apply for EEA membership as soon as the economic conditions are right. Perhaps that will be a year and the EU evangelists will be proved right – and I will have no problem with that. We could of course go for full EU membership at that point too.

If we do go the EEA route we can then choose to join the EU at any time the economic and political conditions are right and from EEA membership we really would be able to join quickly (three years probably).

My guess? To do all of what needs to get done to get into the EU without great pain? Probably not less than ten years.

This week’s meeting appear to set SNP policy – it will open negotiations straight away but put the final deal to the country in a referendum (nothing less than that would be democratically acceptable anyway).

In my view this leaves us in the worst of all possible worlds – we will still need to answer all the questions in the referendum but we almost tacitly appear to realise it could be entirely politically unsellable. And of course it makes arguing over border issues during the referendum much, much harder.

The formulation I support above is one I believe can almost certainly be achieved and which I am absolutely confident I can support and sustain throughout a referendum campaign.

If EU evangelists believe the same about their position they should do the work on the implications of everything I have outline above, publish it (especially the fiscal details) and take questions to see just how solid their claims are.

If they can, I will be perfectly happy to be proved wrong.

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