Scotland must have another independence referendum, says Nicola Sturgeon. Its people are crying out for it. The will of the Scottish people, according to the SNP government, is being ignored by Theresa May. The only solution, a second “once in a generation” referendum.
“The UK government,” declared Ms Sturgeon, “has not moved an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement. Our efforts at compromise have instead been met with a brick wall of intransigence.”
The phrase “our efforts at compromise” suggests that the SNP government has sought common ground, a position somewhere in the middle, something that everyone could live with, if only both sides would move just ever so slightly. This compromise requires closer examination, and that’s exactly what I did as chair of Ruth Davidson’s Brexit Commission.
In short, the SNP’s “reasonable” position would require the UK government to sponsor Scottish membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Such membership would in effect allow Scotland to remain in the EU single market while also remaining within the UK’s single market. In advocating such an approach, the Scottish government cite the endeavours of the Faroe Isles to join the EFTA club.
As the Brexit Commission concluded, there were a number of fundamental flaws in this approach and the Faroese comparison. First and foremost, EFTA is an association of sovereign states, and neither Faroe nor Scotland is a sovereign state. Norwegian Trade Minister Monica Maeland made this very clear following a meeting of EFTA ministers back in November last year. Second, the Faroese fish-based economy is nothing like the complex economy of Scotland (Faroese GDP is $1.6bn; Scotland’s is $17bn). Third, the issue of a border is moot for Faroe, a group of islands in the northeast Atlantic, unlike Scotland which has a land border with its principle trading partner. Also worth noting that the number of EU nationals living in Scotland (181,000) is almost four times the total population of the Faroes (49,469).
The clincher for me, however, is the simple fact that the Faroe Isles have conspicuously failed to secure membership of EFTA even after a decade of endeavour, even with the advocacy of Denmark (the Faroes are part of the Danish realm) – itself a member of the EU and the single market. The ability of the UK, itself about to depart the EU, to secure EFTA membership for only a part of the its territory has even less prospect of success than the Danish/Faroe gambit.
Look closer. If the UK did manage, by some powerful alchemy, to secure Scottish membership of EFTA, Scotland would simultaneously be part of the EU single market and the UK single market. As a European colleague said to me upon hearing the Scottish Government proposal, it would be like having your cake and eating it. With Scotland in the EU single market and the UK outside it, slowly but surely the two regulatory frameworks would diverge. Once the EU brokers a free trade deal to which the UK is not a party (or indeed vice versa), it would only be a matter of time before the soft border at Berwick hardened into a concrete divide.
The more you look at the Scottish government’s proposal, the more it looks like the SNP was asking for the moon and blaming Theresa May for not building the rocket.
However, the truly bizarre development, as reported in the Telegraph, is the fact that the SNP has now gone lukewarm on EU membership. Having claimed as justification for an independence referendum that Scotland was being dragged from the EU against its will, the SNP now seems unwilling to state they would seek to take Scotland back in. This peculiar state of affairs was confirmed by SNP MEP Alyn Smith in a BBC radio interview just this week. What is going on?
Of the MEPs I have spoken to since the announcement, even those traditionally supportive of the SNP’s separatist cause, many have expressed bewilderment at the behaviour of Ms Sturgeon. Their reasoning is simple: Brexit will be tough enough without adding further confusion and uncertainty. The fact that the SNP now seems unwilling to confirm an independent Scotland’s ambitions to return to the EU is also going down like a lead baboon.
The ultimate irony of course is that while Nicola Sturgeon talks of a Westminster government that won’t listen, she ignores the fact that the Scottish people don’t want another independence referendum. It’s time to get the back to the day job.
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Ian Duncan is an MEP and a member of the European Parliaments’s Environment, Public Health and Food Committee.