One of the key battlegrounds of the campaign for Scottish independence is the EU. Mostly this is about whether an independent Scotland would remain in the EU or somehow be forced out and have to re-apply. On the whole this issue has generated more fiction than fact, especially from the NO side. But one by one their scare stories dissolve into thin air. The latest is the confirmation, yet again, by the Spanish Foreign Minister that Spain would not oppose Scotland’s membership of the EU. However below the surface there is an interesting array of groups on both the right and the left advocating that either the UK as a whole or an independent Scotland should leave the EU. Though they come from widely different perspectives, they both agree that the EU is unreformable and that its regulations are an unsurmountable obstacle to progress.
The right has done most of the running on promoting an anti-EU agenda. They have operated primarily in England and advocate that the UK leave the EU. Though they will have some support in Scotland, this right wing opposition to the EU is based on UKIP and a significant part of the Tory party. Neither of which has much representation in Scotland. There seems to be two strands to their opposition. One is to oppose immigration, in large part due to a populist fear of foreigners, which is one of the key planks of UKIP. The other strand comes from a segment of the business community. Here the claim is that EU regulations are a millstone round the neck of British firms. According to a recent article by John Longworth of the British Chambers of Commerce in the Daily Mail, they want changes in employment law, health and safety, regional development, justice and home affairs. If not they would want the UK to leave the EU. Now it is not clear just why these unnamed EU regulations are holding back British firms. After all EU regulations apply to all 28 member states and German firms for example seem to have no problem in competing in world markets. The opposition to the EU from the right tends to be based on the desire to do away with what little safeguards the EU provides for workers. No doubt why they have relatively little support in Scotland.
On the other hand there is also significant opposition to the EU from the left, or perhaps more accurately the radical left. Last year’s Radical Independence Conference had a session devoted to the EU, with the general consensus that Scotland would be better off by leaving the EU. This has been followed up more recently by a paper from the Jimmy Reid Foundation on Common Weal approaches to international organizations and trade agreement. You can download the paper here. While this paper deals with all international organizations the key argument also applies to the EU. In summary this view is: “All of these underpin the approach to economic development known as neoliberalism. These are often in conflict with other models of economic development which favour social as well as economic outcomes (such as the Common Weal project in Scotland). While membership of these institutions may well be seen as necessary, it must be understood that they are also immediately limiting when it comes to pursuing a number of economic development strategies, strategies which might greatly benefit Scotland.” Now this is undoubtedly true. However a number of caveats need to be raised. Firstly as this report itself recognizes some progressive reforms are possible within the EU. The Common Weal project advocates many of the principles of what it describes as the Coordinated Market Economies found in Nordic countries. As all the Nordic countries are either full members of the EU or are in the Single Market, this approach at least is compatible with remaining in the EU. The second and to my mind more serious caveat is that what is immediately and most limiting to the pursuit of Common Weal type social and economic reforms is not the EU, but the electorate in Scotland. One does not need to be John Curtice to point out that the prospects for the radical left winning power in the Scottish Parliament are at the moment pretty slim. If we in the left can start creating in Scotland our own version of the Nordic model, many of us will be well pleased. Achieving this kind of transformation change will be hard enough and will take more than two parliamentary terms to embed. If we can then go on to develop a coherent set of policy proposals for further social and economic change, proposals which can then win majority support in a future general election, we can then, and only then, start to seriously think about whether leaving the EU is necessary or not.