Norway or no way: the SNP’s Brexit shambles

Norway or no way: the SNP’s Brexit shambles

by Murdo Fraser
article from Saturday 19, November, 2016

IT SEEMED like a golden opportunity for the SNP. On the morning of June the 24th, the UK had just voted to leave the European Union, but with 62% of Scottish voters backing Remain. It was exactly what Nicola Sturgeon had been waiting for.

Within hours of the result being announced, the First Minister called a press conference at Bute House, her official residence in Edinburgh, stating it was unacceptable that Scotland now faced being dragged out of the European Union "against our will" and it was now “highly likely” that there would be a second independence referendum. If Scotland could not stay in the EU, then it would have to become an independent country and seek EU membership separately.

The cards seemed to have fallen perfectly for the SNP. It had lost the 2014 referendum, a vote which its leaders had persistently described as a “once in a generation” opportunity. It had just come out of the 2016 Scottish Parliament election as the largest party, with a manifesto commitment to have a referendum in the event of a material change of circumstance. Here was precisely the change that It could argue justified re-running the referendum. And the First Minister sounded confident that public opinion in Scotland, so pro-EU compared to England and Wales, would swing behind independence.

Sadly for the SNP, the voters didn’t agree. After an initial bounce in opinion poll support for independence, there was a rapid return to the figures of 55% No, 45% Yes that represented the outcome of the 2014 referendum. Nicola Sturgeon’s demands that Scotland had to stay in the EU, or there would be an immediate independence referendum, had fallen on deaf ears.

So the SNP fell back on Plan B. If Scotland could not immediately become an independent country and stay in the EU, then at least Scotland had to stay in the Single Market. The First Minister set out five tests that would apply to Scotland’s future relationship with the EU. If these could not be achieved by the UK government’s negotiations, then that would justify the calling of a second independence referendum.

A committee of experts: academics, diplomats, and lawyers, was established to think great thoughts and advise the Scottish government on the way forward, while the veteran MSP and former Cabinet Secretary Michael Russell was taken out of retirement and given the grand title of “Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe”.

All this intellectual firepower set to work to devise a means whereby Scotland could uniquely retain its relationship with the rest of the EU, whilst the UK as a whole was leaving. There was much talk of a “reverse Greenland” arrangement and “all options” were to be considered, or so we were told.

Nearly five months on, we are still no clearer as to what exactly the SNP is trying to achieve. SNP demands, at Holyrood and Westminster, for the UK government to provide clarity about its negotiating position have become increasingly shrill, while the Scottish government has nothing whatsoever to say on its own proposals of how Brexit might affect Scotland.

On Monday night, ahead of a Scottish Parliament debate the following day on Scotland’s relationship with the Single Market, SNP spinners briefed BBC Scotland’s Political Editor Brian Taylor that the favoured option was European Economic Area (EEA) Membership, which would give Scotland a status akin to Norway. This would provide full access to the Single Market, but without being formally a part of the EU.

Whoever dreamed that one up clearly hadn’t done their homework. A range of experts had already dismissed the Norway option as a way forward. In September, in its submission to the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee enquiry into Scotland’s relationship with the EU, the Law Society of Scotland said that being a member of the EEA would mean that the UK “would still be subject to most EU regulations but would not have direct influence or representation in any of the EU institutions”. In other words, this would be the worst of all worlds.

Moreover, the EEA option directly contradicted the fifth of the five tests set out by the First Minister back in June, in that she demanded any arrangement would mean that Scotland would have to have influence in the preparation of EU Single Market rules. Clearly, EEA membership would not provide this.

Commenting on the Norway option, Professor Michael Keating of Edinburgh University’s Centre on Constitutional Change, observed that this would be “the most complex arrangement imaginable”. He also noted that it would be impossible for Scotland to be part of the EEA while the UK remained outside without a hard border being introduced between the two jurisdictions, which would entail substantial negative consequences for cross-border trade.

(Incidentally, for those who ask why the same issues do not apply to the Irish situation, there are two very distinct factors that need to be borne in mind. Firstly, the very different, and troubled, history of relationships between the North and South of Ireland which does not apply elsewhere in the UK. And, secondly, the fact that there is in the Irish Sea a physical barrier between the island of Ireland and the rest of the UK, in a way that one does not exist between England, and Scotland or even Wales.)

Within hours of the BBC leading its morning news bulletins with the story of the SNP’s preferred EEA option, the Scottish government was in full retreat. When I quizzed the Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, Keith Brown, on the issue in the Scottish Parliament Chamber on Tuesday afternoon, he replied, “Just because the BBC says that that is the Scottish government’s position, that does not make it so”.

But, by Wednesday, the position had changed once again. Appearing at the Scottish Parliament’s Convenors’ Committee, the First Minister stated that she was “looking at” a Norway-style Brexit deal. Later that day, it emerged that the Scottish government had itself published a report three years ago arguing that the Norway option was not desirable from either an economic or democratic perspective. This stated that “Scotland’s citizens would lose all ability to influence the laws and regulations to which they would be subject” because EEA members have little input into the Single Market’s rules. And, that this arrangement would make Scotland less attractive to foreign investors. Embarrassingly for the First Minister, this very report bore a foreword written by her.

After a week of twists and turns, we are all as confused as ever as to what exactly the SNP is looking for from a deal with the EU. What is clear is that whatever arrangement it seeks, it seems likely to prefer the 15% of our trade that Scotland does with the EU, to the 64% that is done with the rest of the UK. It is not surprising that many experts and academics have warned of the risk to our trading relationship with the rest of the UK from preferring our trading relationship with the EU, when the latter is worth less than a quarter as much. It would be cutting off our nose to spite our face.

The bottom line is that Scotland’s interests in the EU are best secured by being part of the UK negotiation, not separate from it. It is the UK that EU institutions want to negotiate with, as Nicola Sturgeon has found to her cost in being turned away by senior figures in other European countries and institutions. And perhaps that is not surprising when other EU members like Belgium and Spain can see the real dangers to their own internal unity of agreeing a separate deal for Scotland.

The SNP has been sent back to the drawing board to start again. Its leaders have a few weeks to come up with their desired plan, and we can expect more kites to be flown in this period, no doubt to be blasted out of the air quicker than pheasants heading for the butts. In the meantime, there is absolutely no sign of support for independence growing amongst the Scottish people. The SNP’s whole strategy has unravelled, taking more and more of Nicola Sturgeon’s credibility along with it.


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