Robin McAlpine has another article on Common Space on how to win indyref2.This time it is for an independent Scotland to join EFTA(European Free Trade Association]). Effectively this means joining, or staying in, the EU’s Single Market, but leaving the EU Customs Union.This could according to Robin “solve our trade problems, our Brexit problems, our ‘Europe’s bad for Scottish fishing and agriculture’ problems and more”. The other advantage according to Robin is that this will help win indyref2 as this option would reassure those who voted to Leave the EU last summer.
These are quite considerable claims, and I am immediately reminded of the old adage: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. It is interesting that in the article Robin makes this plea to the movement,”take tricky issues more seriously – borders, trade, tariffs and so on. These are real issues that won’t disappear through the power of rhetoric”. It is a very good plea. It is just a pity that Robin did not apply it to this article, which is long on rhetoric and remarkably free of evidence.
This lack of evidence is apparent in his comments on the EU. In order to make joining EFTA a better option, he clearly felt he needed to portray the EU in the worst possible light. According to Robin the EU is really, really bad. Here are some of the things Robin has to say about the EU. “I used to believe in the project when it was largely a social one. Now it has become a corporate project, I feel little commitment. The whole project is in crisis anyway and may not last. And with varying forms of extremist government in Poland, Hungary and Croatia and with France, Austria, Holland and others all being nip-and-tuck close to the same thing, it’s not anything like as attractive a project as it was.”
Robin also claims that the EU creates problems and imposes policies which harm Scottish interests. While remaining in the EU could result in Scotland being part of a political union with potential fascists.
All very disturbing if not downright nasty. But is any of it true? The claim that the EU has changed from a social project to a corporate one for example. Robin provides no clarification by what he means by a corporate project. Is this just the usual Lexit assertion that the EU is a bosses’ club. Or that the EU is dominated by business interests. It would help if Robin had provided us with some clarity as regards to what he means by this term, corporate project. It would also help if he had offered us some evidence to support this claim. It seems to betray some ignorance of how the EU came about. A clue can be found in the Treaty of Rome, way back in the mid 1950s. This treaty established the European Economic Community, popularly known as the Common Market. Subsequently this name has changed to the Single Market. But it is quite clear that from its inception the EU has always been about economics. For most member states, other than the UK under Tory rule, the Common or Single Market has always included social measures along with health and safety. So pace Robin there is no fundamental divide between the economic and the social in the EU.
What about the claim that the project is in crisis and may not last. Again no evidence is provided to back up this assertion. It is begs the question of why is Robin so keen on Scotland joining EFTA and the Single Market. If the EU does collapse, so will the Single Market. For Robin to spend so much time extolling the benefits of Scotland joining the Single Market, I can only assume that he does not expect the EU to collapse and only included this unfounded assertion in order to further denigrate the EU.
The same applies to his suggestion that extremists are on the verge of taking over many member states and that the EU could become a political union with potential fascists. Again no evidence is offered. I am surprised that Robin is peddling this line as his claim boils down to the following. It would be extremely bad for Scottish ministers to enter a room with extremists and potential fascists and get involved in discussing and voting on decisions affecting the Single Market. On the other hand it is just dandy for these same extremists and potential fascists to influence and vote on these decisions which Scotland would then have to just accept. Doesn’t make much sense to me.
His other claim that the EU creates problems and imposes policies which harm Scottish interests is also evidence free. Only agriculture and fisheries are mentioned in his article. Does this mean that these are the only two sectors of the Scottish economy which have problems with the EU? Even with these two sectors no actual evidence is provided. We know that many, most? farmers and fishermen oppose the EU, but are we reduced to accepting at face value whatever any interest group asserts? What about some serious analysis Robin?
This sudden concern for farmers and fishermen also sits rather awkwardly with Robin’s earlier article on How to win indy2 with a new story. There Robin was insistent that “polling evidence also states clearly that if we don’t have a story that works for people who earn less than £25,000 a year, we lose.” Not sure how that squares with appealing or appeasing the mostly rich farmers and fishermen.
Having tried to establish that the EU is really bad and we should leave it, Robin goes on to recommend that Scotland stays in the Single Market by joining EFTA. Remaining in the Single Market would be beneficial for Scotland according to Robin, something I wholeheartedly agree with. However Robin also recommend that Scotland leaves the EU Customs Union. This would allow Scotland to negotiate its own trade deals with other countries.
There is one other country that Robin has in mind for a new trade deal, and this is the UK or what would by then have become rUK. Robin is much taken with the fact that rUK is the destination for most of Scotland’s exports and naturally does not want to damage this trade. As Robin himself puts it, “Nevertheless, exports to the UK really are much more important to us at the moment than exports to the EU and we need to take that seriously. There is a very straightforward solution to this which solves all these problems and that’s to agree a British Isles Trade Zone.”
Now, as a solution this does seem a bit on the grandiose side. Not to mention perhaps just a bit fantastical. Again it all depends on what Robin means by his use of the term ‘British Isles’. This is not a term much, if at all in current use. Older atlases of the vintage of my childhood did use the term British Isles to cover England, Wales, Scotland, all of Ireland and the many other smaller islands. However this term is hardly if ever used nowadays. If Robin intends his Trade Zone to include the Republic the term should have been a British and Irish Isles Trade Zone. On the other hand if Robin simply means a Trade Zone between and independent Scotland and rUK, why not just say so. I cannot see how the Republic could sign such a deal as long as it remains in the EU.
I confess to being completely confused as to what Robin is advocating here. All the more so, as he offers no clarification as to how this would be agreed and exactly what it would cover. A couple of further points on this. Robin talks about a tariff free trade deal. However, given that tariffs on goods are generally very low, the main obstacles to trade are the non-tarrif barriers. These can include the standards and regulations that characterise the Single Market for example. The Single Market which rUK is committed to leaving. So there may be little scope for a deal which includes much in the way of non-tariff barriers. Secondly trade deals do not tend to include services. Something that is important to the Scottish economy. Thirdly by being in the Single Market, but not the Customs Union there will be additional costs on Scottish businesses. As one of the comments to Robin’s article puts it. “An additional difficulty is that under EFTA/EEA route, Scotland would be outside the customs union and therefore subject to EU rules of origin (which are often higher barriers than default WTO tariffs). This would harm Scottish manufacturing exporters, and moreover, make it less attractive to rUK firms seeking to relocate (who instead might just choose Ireland).”
All of which demonstrates that Robin’s solution may be much, much more complicated than he is prepared to admit, and may incur some serious downsides.
Finally Robin claims that this option – leaving the EU, but remaining in the Single Market – will help win the next independence referendum. The argument here is that, “We’re definitely losing people who previously supported independence but post-Brexit don’t.” By leaving the EU and joining EFTA instead we can win these voters back. As Robin puts it, “Admitting that on independence Scotland will be in EFTA and that we would then have to choose a route forward from there offers reassurance that Eurosceptics would still have some degree of agency on the EU issue if they vote for independence.”
I have to say this sound very much like clutching at straws. By staying in the Single Market, Scotland will have to agree to 1) the free movement of people; 2) implement all the rules, regulations and directives emanating from the EU; 3) accepting the primacy of the EU Court of Justice in settling disputes; 4) continue to pay a fee to the EU. I would like Robin to explain which of these conditions Leavers agree with. All the evidence is that it was precisely to get out of these conditions (take back control, remember) that most Leavers voted the way they did.