Margo MacDonald: Life in Europe: before and Efta

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We were talking about Europe in Holyrood last week. Fiona Hyslop, the Minister responsible for dealing with the EU and other even further away places, complained that Richard Lochead, the Minister for Haddies, Cod and Crusteachens, had to play second fiddle in negotiations over the Common Fisheries policy to ministers from Westminster whose knowledge of fish was a firm conviction that they’re best grilled with a twist of lemon.

This is one of these rare topics that unites the chamber. It just seems silly to leave the nitty-gritty negotiations to Westminster ministers and have the much more clued-up Scots representatives sitting outside the room, in a chair behind the minister from HM Government, and only on odd occasions in the ear-whispering chair beside the minister from Westminster. Blue moons have been glimpsed in the sky over Brussels when Scottish ministers have been allowed to lead the UK delegation’s negotiations.

But power and statehood are the important words in describing how the EU works. Seventy per cent of the UK’s fish IS traded in Scotland, representing a third of the total catch in the EU’s area, but we are not a sovereign state like Luxembourg or Austria, which have no sea boundaries and therefore no fishing industries. Their fish-free statehood nevertheless guarantees them a seat, and a vote, at the table where the decisions are made that matter to thousands of people whose jobs, prosperity and future are dependant on the feasibility and fairness of the Common Fisheries Policy.

The same is true of the processes that support and drive the Common Agricultural Policy, energy policy, foreign policy etc. But that situation changes when Scotland votes for, and negotiates the transfer of sovereign powers from Westminster to Holyrood. There’s a division of opinion on whether the welcome mat would be out for us as a member state, alongside England and the rest. International legal precedent suggests that would be the case, although Spain and other member countries with never-far-from-the-surface unresolved dilemmas of the unrepresented nations inside their borders, would be unlikely to lead the cheering.

It’s at this point the Scottish consensus breaks down, and Scotland’s two tribes go to war over the question of whether an independent Scotland would be a member by right (Nationalists and fellow travellers), or sans culottes outside the circle of EU prosperity (Labour, Tory and Lib Dem). Neither side appears to even fleetingly consider whether the current state of power-play between the states of northern and southern Europe would have any effect on the policy towards Scottish membership.

But embarrassing as is that lack of worldliness, it’s not all that important. As in all other so-called irrevocable treaties politics trump yesterday’s pledges to buy each other’s manufactured goods and stand firm against other, perhaps poorer, countries selling their produce inside charmed circles, like the EU.

Currently in the EU, its leaders are dealing with the implosion of the eurozone and questioning whether it’s best for the future prosperity and stability of the EU to allow Greece to default on loans from other EU states, before falling into an economic black hole, outside the euro, or to create a “debt union” in the face of the known opposition of the people who would bankroll it . . . the Germans.

If Scots vote for sovereignty in a referendum, on which side of this little EU difficulty would our interests be best served? Would we as Scots be willing to have our financial contributions to “Bail out the PIGS” used, not to rescue Portuguese, Irish, Greeks and Spaniards, but to keep the Project on the road? Over the last few frenetic weeks in the eurozone, the president of the European Central Bank and numerous other euro-fanatics have admitted out loud what the Lisbon Treaty had in the small print . . . the game we’re all playing is the Federal United Europe.

Any objective assessor would question the feasibility of that objective, given our experience of trying the one size fits all strategy that is threatening people’s wellbeing, businesses and national stability and order, but if Scotland becomes sovereign, there is another choice. We could apply for membership of the European Free Trade Association (Efta).

In last week’s debate, answering a question on this point from me, Fiona Hyslop confirmed this to be the case if Scotland was a sovereign country. Labour and Tory criticism that choosing Efta would restrict Scotland’s exports simply betrayed that the opposition parties haven’t kept up to date with the politics of post-Cold War Europe.

In common with the SNP, whose Independence in Europe policy pre-dates the Berlin Wall’s demise, these kailyard devolutionists appear oblivious to the terms of the European Economic Area that created a free trade area for Efta and EU countries in 1994 . . . allowing Norway, for example, to sell more to the EU than Scotland does, without the political control from Brussels.