The first TV debate of the SNP leadership election, on STV on March 7, was notable not only for its acrimonious tone and ‘yellow on yellow’ attacks but also for the almost complete lack of policy substance. Nowhere was this clearer than on the question of the European Union – supposedly core to the SNP’s independence arguments.
While accusations were flung to and fro on standing up to the UK government, what defines being progressive or right wing, and how Scotland can ever get to a binding independence vote, the case for independence in the EU and its potential positive impact on core questions from the economy to security to culture to migration were barely touched on.
Answering the key EU questions
Fortunately, when members of the public were allowed to put questions, an SNP member put a clear and pertinent question on Europe: asking what immediate steps the candidates would take to prioritise Scotland’s future place in the EU both in the run-up to and post-independence. This is an excellent question: what can and should the Scottish government and SNP do now to further the EU dimension of independence, what should it do after a successful independence vote (while separation from the UK is negotiated), and what should it do from independence day one.
Sad to say, to varying degrees the candidates flunked this comprehensive question.
Kate Forbes claimed she had a three-part answer: first, to stay aligned as far as possible to EU laws, second, to maintain close connections to European partners on big issues such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and third, to take steps (undefined) to ensure re-entry to Europe is as smooth as possible.
Humza Yousaf started clearly with an ‘unequivocal’ commitment to re-join the EU and a dismissal of the Efta option. But then his two priority steps would be, he said, to open an SNP office in Brussels, and to repeatedly remind people that a deal like the Northern Ireland protocol had been denied to the Scottish people.
Ash Regan, in her answer, said the EU was a good thing but it could take 10-15 years to join and so possibly joining Efta was the answer. Given the central and eastern European countries took four to six years from starting negotiations to joining the EU (1998-2004 and 2000-2004), this looks a little pessimistic.
What none of the candidates did was to say that being a full EU member state was central to the independence case, that an independent Scotland would be in a strong position to join the EU rapidly, and that, as soon as they became First Minister, they would immediately publish the paper prepared by the Scottish Government and its officials over the last year on the EU goal and the steps required to achieve it.
Kate Forbes is certainly right that aligning to EU law in devolved areas would be a good idea – and it’s a SNP commitment. But it’s one that the Scottish Government has so far failed to stick to. Indeed, a report to Holyrood’s external affairs committee by academic Dr Lisa Claire Whitten found that at least 559 acts of EU implementing law have been passed and adopted by the EU that would come under Scotland’s devolved competence in part of in whole. Yet the Scottish Government so far suggests it intends to align with just one new EU law on water quality standards. Kate Forbes didn’t mention this gap, and indeed seemed happier to talk vaguely about Europe than specifically about the EU.
Humza Yousaf’s idea of establishing an SNP office in Brussels may be a good one for sustaining and building relations with like-minded European parties, though there is already a substantial Scottish government office there which works well to maintain Scotland’s EU profile and networks. An SNP office as well is not an obvious top priority. And the SNP’s senior politicians surely know that there is, and was, no chance of the EU’s Northern Ireland Protocol being extended to Scotland. It was a deal done to ensure the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remained open, putting the border required due to Brexit in the Irish Sea instead. Going on about the NI Protocol is not a means to prioritising the path back to the EU. If the goal of independence in the EU is a serious one, then Ireland (not Northern Ireland) is the best comparator for Scotland.
Meanwhile, Ash Regan seems unsure if she is arguing for an Efta route or not but, in suggesting it, she is clearly courting that significant minority of the SNP’s members who would prefer to eventually be in the European Economic Area, not the EU. However, her suggestion that it could take 10-15 years to re-join the EU should not pass uncontested.
Timelines to join the EU
On independence, Scotland could rapidly put in its EU accession application. Given its background as part of a former, long-time EU member state, i.e. the UK, if it hasn’t diverged too far from EU laws, this process could be rapid. It might, at the fastest, take up to a year for the EU to recognise Scotland as a candidate country and start accession talks, 2-3 years for negotiations, and 1-2 years for ratification. Austria, Finland and Sweden took around 3 years to join the EU in the 1990s. The EU has grown bigger and more complex since then but a likely timeline of 4-5 years looks feasible.
But none of the SNP leadership candidates on STV’s debate said they would aim to put in Scotland’s EU membership application in the early months of independence. None of them talked about what they would do to prepare the path to EU negotiations via intensive diplomatic work in the period between a vote to leave the UK and actually becoming independent, nor to prepare business, civil society organisations and the general public for the politics and path to rejoining the EU. And none of them even suggested they would publish, in their first month – or week even – as leader, the detailed paper on EU accession that has been in the works for almost a year.
The Scottish Government has, in fact, done more than might be imagined from this weak showing from the three First Minister candidates on the EU. There are now Scottish government ‘hubs’ in Berlin, Copenhagen, Dublin, and Paris as well as the Brussels office. There has been some low key para-diplomacy presenting Scotland to other EU member states as a normal, democratic and progressive northern European country that would be a positive, constructive EU member state. And there is a very light European strategy including some rather broad, top level priorities.
But rejoining the EU has not exactly dominated Scottish Government and SNP political campaigning and communications in recent years. The leadership campaign is an opportunity to talk up the EU goal, explain how it would be brought to the forefront, the core details of policy and the transition path set out, and, afterwards, to prioritise engagement by SNP politicians in Holyrood and Westminster in making the EU case.
But the three candidates so far do not look like they will make this case. This is a great pity both as independence in the EU is, still, the SNP’s core goal and as there is a lot of interest within the SNP and in the wider public debate about understanding how an independent Scotland could re-join the EU, how the accession process works, what being an EU member state looks like, and what the transition path would be.
An independent Scotland in the EU or the EEA: a choice has to be made
There is also a fair amount of confusion in some parts of the European and independence debate about the so-called Efta option. Ash Regan leans towards Efta but it would be helpful if she or the other candidates would clarify the basic facts.
An independent Scotland could indeed apply to join Efta instead of the EU. That application would be decided by Efta’s four members: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Such a move would not give an independent Scotland automatic access to the EU’s single market but it would oblige it to try to join existing Efta trade deals, with no guarantee of success. This would take some time. Once in Efta, Scotland could not be part of a customs union with the EU or rest of UK (since that would cut across being part of Efta trade deals).
Once in Efta, an independent Scotland could apply to join the European Economic Area which would give access to the EU’s single market for goods, services, people and capital. This decision would be taken unanimously by the 27 EU member states of the EEA and the three Efta/EEA members. No state has joined the EEA via Efta since the original three of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland in 1995. But it is reasonable to assume that the EU would demand the same detailed accession process to meeting all the legislative and institutional criteria of joining its single market, and associated ‘horizontal’ policies, via the EEA as via the EU. A financial contribution would need to be agreed too. And Scotland’s future trade relations with the rest of the UK would look very similar to the sort of trade deals that the Efta-EEA three negotiated after Brexit, which in turn strongly mirror most of the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement.
This process might take 3-4 years including ratification of any EEA accession treaty, so perhaps a year faster than EU accession. It would leave an independent Scotland with a major democratic deficit – applying EU rules while having no seat at the EU’s tables nor vote nor veto. It would have a customs border to the EU and a regulatory border to the rest of the UK – which looks rather like the worst of both worlds, rather than a positive alternative.
If, instead, Scotland wanted to join the EU directly, as current SNP policy states, then the EU would, in parallel to accession talks, agree a tailored EU-Scotland trade and association agreement that would open up trade between the two in the transition period between independence and becoming a full EU member state. This EU transition process is not widely understood. Put simply, there is a defined path to EU accession including an association agreement. The EEA does not provide a path to EU membership; it is an alternative to EU membership. The SNP should be focused on getting the basic facts and dynamics of this process out to its members and into the wider public debate.
Time for a serious EU debate
The SNP leadership contest has a couple of weeks to go. And there is still time for the three candidates to set out a serious, substantive case on their perspective on independence, as well as on being First Minister of today’s Scotland in the devolution context. This substantive independence case should include an in-depth and sustained focus on what independence in the EU offers and how to get there. It’s time the SNP got serious on independence in the EU.