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Setting sail in an SNP sieve

The UK is now going to leave the EU by the end of January, and it is likely that the transition period will last until no longer than the end of 2020. This will mean that the UK is unlikely to have a complete trade deal with the EU. It would take longer than a few months to negotiate one. Whatever ties remain between the UK and the EU will therefore be relatively loose. The UK will be able to make trade deals with other countries and will begin to diverge from EU rules and regulations. We will be able to compete with the EU and potentially offer an alternative way of doing business to the EU model. What does this mean for the Leave Remain argument in the UK?

The first thing it means is that Remainers can no longer be Remainers. They will have to either give up on the EU or become Rejoiners. What would campaigning to rejoin the EU entail?

It would mean telling the electorate they were wrong, not merely when they voted to Leave the EU in 2016, but more importantly when they elected the Conservatives twice running on a Leave manifesto. Are Labour really going to insist that the Brexit supporting voters who switched from Labour to Conservative were stupid? Are the Lib Dems having been reduced to 11 seats on a Revoke Article 50 platform going to go into an election on a Revoke Brexit platform?

We don’t know how leaving the EU is going to go. We haven’t left yet, and we are not going to leave the transition period for another year. But early signs are that the markets were absolutely delighted that the Conservatives won and perfectly content that we are leaving the EU. The uncertainty is now over and there is the prospect of lots of investment in the years to come. The Conservative Government intends to spend a great deal on improving life in those parts of the UK that are less well off. We will trade reasonably freely with the EU while having the chance to make our own deals with the USA, Australia, Japan etc. We may be able to undercut the EU and be able to do business with less regulation and more profit. After three years of dither and not doing much we have the chance to make progress.

Rejoiners have to hope that Brexit goes badly for the UK. If Britain does well from leaving the EU, the Rejoiner argument will be hopeless. For this reason, the Rejoiners must hope that the UK has a deep recession, with millions of job losses so that we have to go back to the EU like the prodigal son. EU forgive me for I have sinned, what is my penance?

Hoping that your country does badly is not a particularly good look, but let’s imagine that somehow a few years from now there is a Rejoiner Government. What would be the conditions for rejoining the EU? These conditions are worth investigating because they would also apply to an independent Scotland which would not be rejoining the EU, because it never joined in the first place, but would rather be joining from scratch.

  1. Political union.

The UK or Scotland would have to promise to accept the aims of the EU. The EU aims to achieve monetary, fiscal and political union. It might have been possible in 1973 to pretend that the Common Market was only a trading group, but we all know better now. The question for the SNP would thus be why are you leaving one political union (the UK) in order to join another (the EU). If you can’t bear to be in a political union with people who speak English, how do you suppose you will be able to bear being in such a union with people who don’t. If you dislike being ruled by Westminster, why will you be happier being ruled by Brussels?

  1. Rebate

For the UK to rejoin the EU we would have to accept that we would have to pay more for our membership. The UK would not receive, the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher, but neither for that matter would Scotland. Brexit will mean that the proportion of the membership fee that Scotland would have to pay would also increase.

  1. Schengen

All new EU member states have to promise to join the Schengen zone. Ireland and the UK received opt outs, but these are no longer available. The result for the UK would be that there would be no border checks between Calais and Dover. Migrants in France and anywhere else in the EU could simply get on a train and arrive in England without any checks whatsoever. When millions of refugees marched into Germany, they could equally as easily have marched into Britain. The problem for Scotland is that if Scotland were in Schengen while the former UK was not, there would be nothing to stop anyone who got into Scotland from simply walking across the border. For this reason, Scotland’s membership of Schengen would most likely entail border controls between England and Scotland. For this reason an independent Scotland could not be a member of the Common Travel zone that currently exists between the UK and Ireland.

  1. Euro.

Each new EU member state must promise to join the Euro. It’s all very well saying that we would break this promise, but if you don’t agree with the aims of the EU why ask to join? In order to join the Euro it is likely that Scotland would have to have its own currency and central bank. Otherwise it could not cope with the Euro convergence criteria and could not enter the Exchange Rate Mechanism (which the UK so famously was kicked out of in 1992.)

  1. Currency.

Each and every one of the present EU members had its own currency prior to joining the EU. Using Sterling unilaterally after leaving the UK would make it difficult for Scotland to fulfil the economic criteria which the EU requires from candidate countries. For instance, Scotland would have no control over interest rates or monetary policy, which would make it difficult for Scotland to reduce its deficit to the level the EU require without introducing radical cuts to public spending.  It’s unclear anyway that it would be possible for an EU country to use the currency of a non-EU country, because it’s never been tried.

  1. Law.

Each new EU member has to follow the rule of law. No new EU member has seceded from a member state while that country was a member state, but we know that the EU sided with Spain after Catalonia tried to secede illegally.  If Scotland were to attempt to become independent by means of an illegal referendum, it would bar itself from EU membership, because it had broken article two of the Treaties of the European Union. It would not have followed the rule of law.

  1. Trade

As the UK makes trade deals with other countries such as the USA and as we benefit from importing goods no longer subject to the EU’s Common External Tariff, it will be recognised that rejoining the EU or in Scotland’s case joining from scratch would involve giving up these trade deals. If UK or Scottish businesses benefit from our new trading relationship with the rest of the world, they will have to recognise that rejoining/joining the EU will mean these deals ceasing.  Those who hope for future EU membership are reduced to hoping UK trade goes badly.

  1. Powers

Both the UK and Scotland will gain new powers as a result of Brexit. Areas such as agriculture, fisheries, trade, and environment will controlled largely by the devolved parliaments of the UK with some input from the UK Parliament to make sure that there is harmony in the UK’s internal market. For the UK to rejoin or for Scotland to join the EU we would need to give up control of our territorial waters. We would need to cease controlling our own farms and environment. The Scottish Parliament will as a result of Brexit gain new powers. The SNP will have to explain to the Scottish people why it wants to make the Scottish Parliament less powerful and why it wants to give up power in order to become “independent”.

  1. Border

The UK will be outside the EU’s Single Market and Custom’s Union. If Scotland were to join the EU, the EU’s external border would be between England and Scotland. The only way to prevent this giving rise to border checks would be if the former UK agreed to rejoin the EU’s Single Market and Custom’s Union. This obviously would not happen. It is inevitable therefore that border checks would have to take place between Scotland and England. Not least because former UK goods would be subject to the EU’s Common External Tariff and Scottish goods would be subject to whatever tariffs the former UK chose to impose. These checks might involve border checks or they might be done remotely. But we have learned from the “backstop” debate that the EU will insist that checks are made somewhere.

  1. Divergence.

Brexit is going to cause the UK to gradually diverge from the EU. The more this happens the harder it will be for either the UK to rejoin or for Scotland to join the EU, because we would be required to converge again with EU rules and regulations. The further the UK diverges from the EU, the greater the distance would be between an independent Scotland and the former UK if Scotland were to join the EU. Scotland trades far more with the other parts of the UK than with anyone else. Independence would inevitably mean Scotland ceasing to be part of the UK’s Internal market, but an independent Scotland in the EU would be in a different trading bloc to its greatest trade partner and that trade partner would be diverging from Scotland just as Scotland was converging with the EU. It is preposterous to suppose that Scotland could benefit economically from this arrangement.

The obstacles to the UK rejoining the EU are such that it may as well be discounted. But the obstacles to Scotland joining the EU are if anything even greater. Not only would Scotland have to go through the upheaval of leaving the UK, we would not be able to join the EU that we are in at present. We wouldn’t be able to do this not merely because the UK would no longer be there, but just as importantly because rules for new members have changed since the UK first became a member and require things that they did not require before.

The condition for the possibility that Scotland could become independent was always that the UK was a member of the EU. If that were the case, then Scottish independence could occur with minimal disruption to the Scottish economy. But Brexit changes the relationship between an independent Scotland and the former UK so radically and involves such uncertainty and so many unresolved questions that it would involve Scotland starting life both outside the UK and outside the EU. The SNP might as well propose that we set sail in a sieve without charts.

This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2019/12/setting-sail-in-snp-sieve.html

About Effie Deans

Profile photo of Effie Deans
Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger who works at the University of Aberdeen. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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