The first thing anyone should do is actually read what the document it says. It is true that the First Minister says that her preferred option is for an independent Scotland within the EU. Is anyone surprised at that? It was hardly a secret. But the possibility of a second independence referendum is way down on the list of the options. Her stated preference is that Scotland and the UK remain as full members of the EU. I agree with that. The next best option is for the entire UK to remain within the European Economic Area, the EEA. I agree with that too. It is only if those two options are rejected that the option of a Scotland-only membership of the EEA is proposed in the Scottish Government document.
Now, I still hope that the UK as a whole comes to its senses and decides to remain in the EU. And, if not, I see no reason why there could not be a majority in the UK Parliament for EEA membership for the UK as a whole. That could happen if it was backed by UK Labour – a combination of Labour, SNP, LibDem, SDLP, Green and pro-Europe Tory MPs could have a clear majority for that. But the Scottish Government cannot be criticised for looking at the options if that doesn’t happen – indeed, it would rightly be criticised if it did not.
So are the Scottish Government’s proposals for Scotland-only membership feasible? Their adoption would certainly be challenging. However, I believe that their model could work. One of the difficulties of trying to set up an arrangement where Scotland tried to stay in the EU and the UK, even where the rest of the UK left, would be that as the EU is a union of sovereign member states, it would seem inconceivable that the EU would let Scotland, as a non-sovereign state, be a member. However, members of the EEA do not participate in the EU decision-making and legislative structures. Furthermore, any EEA-type agreement for Scotland would have to be negotiated separately, and therefore make it more possible to take into account the special features of Scotland’s relationships with both the EU and the rest of the UK.
One undoubted area of difficulty for the Scottish Government’s proposals is how to deal with trade with the rest of the UK, if Scotland was to enter into an EEA-style relationship with the EU. Their proposals make it clear that they would want Scotland to remain in a customs union and single market with the rest of the UK. Their document make a number of suggestions as how this can be achieved in practical terms. These are not entirely convincing, and any such arrangements would need to be developed carefully if there was not to be a ‘hard border’ between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Equally, however, the solutions proposed are not outlandish, and it would be wrong to caricature the proposals as meaning Scotland would be turning its back on the UK single market if it tried to stay in the European single market. It certainly seems to me that the problems have the potential of being overcome if the political will was there.
And that, of course, is the nub of the matter. Are the Scottish Government’s proposals politically possible? What I say to that is at a time of fundamental threats to Europe, surely we cannot rule out the possibility of a flexibility within the EU to keep Scotland in as close as possible relationship even if that mean new structures to achieve that would need to be developed. It is also the case that Scottish Labour, in spite of its relative current weakness, could help make the difference between success and failure for an EEA option for Scotland. That is because support from Scottish Labour for such an option could help persuade the UK Labour Party to support it. And support from UK Labour could mean that, in turn, other social democratic and socialist forces within the rest of the EU – still a powerful force – would be persuaded to take such proposals seriously, and make their achievement more possible.
Now, some of the more excitable voices in Scottish Labour have suggested I am naïve in being prepared to take the Scottish government’s proposals seriously. Nicola Sturgeon has only put them forward in the knowledge they will be rejected, it is suggested, and that when that happens it will give her more powerful ammunition for a second independence referendum. That might be a fair criticism if the proposals were outrageously absurd. But the response from neutral and informed commentators (see, for example, http://www.europeanfutures.ed.ac.uk/article-4490) is that they are certainly worth examining. If they are workable, they would certainly be a lot better for Scotland than being outside the EU, or the UK – or both.
And Scottish Labour would stand in much better stead with the voters if it shows that it is prepared to take a constructive approach to the Scottish Government’s proposals in their paper than if it is seen to adopt a position of knee-jerk negativity. I urge Kezia Dugdale to take the bold step of giving support in principle to the proposal of an EEA option for Scotland, if the UK as a whole leaves the EU and the EEA. That does not stop her from continuing to make clear that she would not support a second independence referendum. Such a position would reflect the views of Scottish Labour supporters and voters, who are overwhelmingly in favour of Scotland being in both the Europe and the UK.
(First published in http://www.labourhame.com on 22nd December 2016)