It will be of no surprise to anyone reading this that I disagree with the First Minister on many issues, not least that of Scottish independence. But we do agree on one important point. We both want Scotland to have the closest possible relationship with our European partners following a Brexit neither of us wanted.
Having devoted the majority of my professional life to the European project and Britain’s place within it, the result on June 23 came as a hammer blow. After coming to terms with this tremendous act of self-harm, my focus has now switched to preserving as many of the EU’s benefits - including the Erasmus programme, scientific funding, security cooperation, social rights etc - as possible for my constituents.
This is why I agreed to join the First Ministers Standing Council on Europe, and along with a group of experts I have been advising the Scottish government on EU issues.
The Scottish government’s paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe, is the first significant piece of work to be inspired by this specialist committee, although as is clearly stated within the paper, it is not a view that is wholly shared by everyone on the Standing Council.
This is the first detailed plan on Brexit from any government in the UK, and Mrs Sturgeon should be commended for her attempt to advance the national debate. The paper suggests three options:
- The UK as a whole remains part of the single market and the EU customs union;
- Scotland remains a member of the European Union by becoming an independent country; and
- Scotland seeks an innovative ‘differentiated’ solution, whereby it remains a member of the single market through the European Economic Area (EEA) and part of the UK, even as the rest of the UK departs.
After Theresa May’s speech at Lancaster House, those three choices have now become two, as she made clear that she would be taking the UK out of the single market.
It is my view that though Brexit increases the emotional support for independence - as it reveals another issue where mainstream Scottish opinion is different to that of our English neighbours, it simultaneously damages the economic argument. Although Scotland relies to a large extent on the European single market for its trade, it relies an awful lot more on the long-established single market with the rest of the UK.
In the First Minister’s third option is an implicit recognition of this fact. Economically, it makes sense not to cut Scotland off from either market, so why not try to stay in both?
It is this differentiated solution that has naturally caught the most attention. The plan, for part of a non-member state to retain access to the single market and to remain part of a customs union with that non-member state, is certainly audacious. It is also unprecedented, although in the paper the authors go to great lengths to point out that individual aspects of the arrangement do have precedents. For example, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are members of the EEA but not members of the EU customs union, and Greenland and the Faroe Islands are territories of a member state (Denmark) with bespoke deals that let them be outside the EU.
The paper also points to the UK government’s insistence that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as proof of ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’.
Although it answers many questions, the First Minister’s paper also poses many more: How will they manage the administrative burden of two separate tariff rates within the same territory? How will the rules of origin (a trade term establishing where a product has been made and therefore what the tariff should be) be managed within the UK? What happens when the UK starts making its own trade deals?
So far, so technical. But as my colleague from the Standing Council, Charles Grant, has already pointed out, this plan requires an enormous amount of political will, both from our European partners - like Spain, who are wary of separatist movements in their own country - and of course Theresa May and the UK government. Letting Scotland access the single market means us accepting the four freedoms, which of course would entail the UK ceding powers like immigration and business regulation, hitherto a no-no in even the most generous devolution deal.
All in all this is a good first attempt to find the right solution for Scotland in these historic times and I look forward to continued debate on the specific issues. Scotland has a head start in planning terms. It’s about time the rest of the UK caught up.