Margo MacDonald: More than one way to face EU uncertainty

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Readers who watch really scary programmes on TV, like First Minister’s Questions, and news bulletins on who else ate all the pies, may have heard the Presiding Officer gently nudging me into line after I’d asked my question at FMQs last week. Fair do. I deployed the parliamentary custom of chancing my arm.

A supplementary question is meant to relate to the same subject as the question taken before it. Jacqui Baillie’s question to Alex Salmond referred to the booze minimum pricing introduced by this government. But I could see no other way of introducing a discussion on the European Union, the subject most people would have expected to hear opinions on given the state it’s in. The threat to our economy is considerable if the euro can’t stand the strain of Greece, followed perhaps by Portugal and then Spain, leaving the single currency.

That was why I got in under the wire by asking about Norwegian drinking habits, which are a lot like ours, and then asked First Minister Salmond if, on his visit to Norway to fix up a joint venture with a Norwegian company, he’d had the time to ask his hosts about their experience as members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), as opposed to being members of the EU. Most of Scotland’s political parties declare themselves in favour of the EU, but a considerable number of their members and voters do not. Therefore, it seems sensible and in tune with Scottish voters who have lost their taste for the EU to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of EFTA membership.

If the European Economic Area (EEA), encompassing EFTA and the EU, looks attractive for Scotland – and the number of people beginning to believe this appears to be growing – then we must know the facts. We were conned over the future of the Common Market, as the EU was known when the UK voted to join. As voters, we were assured that it was about free trade and easier movement of people, and certainly not about establishing a United States of Europe.

Membership of EFTA gives Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein the same free access to the EU as member countries. But, critics will argue, EEA membership doesn’t allow representation at the EU’s top decision-making tables, yet the EFTA members have to align their laws unless they negotiate a special arrangement suited to their situation and special interests. There is no transfer of sovereignty and, for some people, this just tips the balance in favour of EFTA and the EEA.

EFTA fans also point to the different ways in which the two organisations deal with funds scheduled for redistribution to poorer Eastern economies of the former Soviet Union. Scotland, like Norway, would be expected to contribute to the joint effort by the EU and EFTA. The difference lies in the efficiency and transparency of the disbursement of the EFTA members’ contributions – non-EU contributions go direct to the country and nowhere near the pooled resources and muddy practices of the EU’s financial department.

Although EEA is a free trade agreement between EFTA and the EU, there are no common policies on agriculture or fishing, for example. EU supporters, particularly those of a unionist persuasion, are quick to point out that the double benefit of being part of one of the big countries in Europe and an important EU member means that Scotland plays a part in the negotiations over the Common Fisheries Policy rules for catch sizes and fishing days. But, as successive Scottish fisheries ministers have found, regardless of their fondness for the EU, they cannot simply put Scotland’s best interests first. Firstly, they have to do what the British minister wants, and his position on fishing is likely to be different from the Scots’ because of the very different importance fishing has to the entire British economy and the 9 per cent or so represented by Scotland’s economy, in which fishing has a much larger importance.

And it’s not Scotland’s small size that determines that her negotiators have to stand in line while the big boys sort things out – it’s her lack of sovereignty. Iceland gets better deals than Scotland with the backing of a much smaller population. But the shortage of fish and the need for countries such as the UK that neglected fishing to get people back to work, in addition to the need to conserve fish stocks, could see the EU ganging up on Iceland, for example. But unlike the Scottish protest against the Common Fisheries Policy of a few years ago, the Icelanders have another line of protection for their fishieries. As a sovereign state, they determine their own defence and security policies, which are based on their need to protect their fisheries. There’s a lot to be said for EFTA . . .