No-Deal Nicola: does the SNP really care about EU membership?

No-Deal Nicola: does the SNP really care about EU membership?

by Jill Stephenson
article from Wednesday 6, January, 2021

THE PLACE of the EU in SNP policy has been anything but consistent. Yet to listen to Nicola Sturgeon and her adjutants, we might be forgiven for thinking that the SNP has been consistently pro-EU with the greatest enthusiasm. On closer examination, it becomes clear the SNP does not care much about Europe. The EU issue has always been a means to the only end that matters to them: breaking up the UK. Tom Gallagher is right to say that ‘the EU is largely a propaganda prop for the SNP’ (Scotland Now, p. 292).

For many people now, 1975 is ancient history, but it is worth remembering that in the EU referendum of that year the SNP campaigned against membership, and continued to oppose it for some years. By the 1980s, however, the SNP was changing tack. As I commented in an essay from 1993:  

            “A Scotland that is free of England but not condemned to isolation and the cold winds of unprotected competition, is a compromise which has considerable appeal and which helps to encourage pro-European sentiment in Scotland, where previously unreconstructed Labourism had promoted anti-Europeanism…. But the commitment of only a relatively small minority of Scots to independence, as opposed to devolution, has led the SNP to abandon its earlier hostility to the EC and, in 1988, to adopt the slogan ‘Independence in Europe’, proposed by Jim Sillars, victor of the Govan parliamentary by-election in the       same year…. The SNP has not, however, explained the terms in which a Scottish application for membership of the EC would be couched, while its publicity disingenuously assumes that Scotland would have considerable influence in the EC – on the scale currently enjoyed by Britain (‘Britain and Europe in the Later Twentieth Century: Identity, Sovereignty, Pecularity’, p. 238).” 

No change there, then. It is worth noting that the architect of ‘Scotland in Europe’ in 1988, Jim Sillars, is now one of the SNP’s loudest voices against an independent Scotland joining the EU. 

Reservations, however, continued. In December 2007, Linda Fabiani, SNP MSP, called on the UK government to hold a referendum on the European Reform (Lisbon) Treaty, because “There are weaknesses in its drafting”. Nevertheless, the SNP’s prospectus for the 2014 referendum, Scotland’s Future (2013), gave a lengthy exposition of the SNP’s intention that a secessionist Scotland should join the EU, and should do so under article 48 of the Treaty of the European Union. This meant that “The Scottish Government will approach EU membership negotiations on the principle of continuity of effect” (emphasis in original). Scotland’s Future rejected the alternative of article 49, which is the conventional route of application for countries seeking admission to the EU. It was not “the appropriate legal base on which to facilitate Scotland’s transition to full EU membership” (p. 221). 

During the referendum campaign in 2014, however, the SNP failed to win endorsement from anyone of note in the EU for its aim of leaving the UK without leaving the EU. The Commission, represented by the President, José Mañuel Barroso, expressed doubts about a separate Scotland being able to join the EU at all, and was roundly vilified by Scottish nationalists for so doing, his credentials and bona fides being called into question. By the time of the vote, in September 2014, the Convener of the European and External Relations Committee of the Scottish Parliament, Christina McElvie, SNP MSP, had written more than once to the EU Commission to ask what the position of Scotland would be vis-à-vis the EU if Scotland left the UK. In response to her letter of 10 March, she received a letter dated 20 March from the Vice-President of the EU Commission, Viviane Reding: 

            “The Commission's position on the issue that you raise has been stated   on a number of occasions since 2004. The Treaties apply to the Member States. When part of the territory of a Member State ceases to be a part of that State, e.g. because that territory becomes an      independent state, the treaties will no longer apply to that territory. In other words, a new independent region would, by the fact of its independence, become a third country with respect to the Union and the Treaties would, from the day of its independence, not apply anymore on its territory.” 

Ms McElvie replied at some length to try to argue against this response, in a letter of 11 April. This time, Ms Reding took a lot longer to respond than the ten days of her first reply, and on 3 June sent a fairly terse message, including:  

“I have taken good note of the views and concerns you express. The Commission would like to refer to its previous reply on the upcoming referendum in Scotland and their possible implications’.  

This left the SNP with the prospect of leaving both the UK and the EU, without a deal. Yet Nicola Sturgeon claimed in July 2014 that her party had proposed “a robust and common sense” position on why an independent Scotland would automatically inherit EU membership due to its previous status as part of the UK. 

The SNP continued to lie about Scotland’s easily being accepted for EU membership throughout the 2014 campaign, but Sturgeon also issued a threat: “There are 160,000 EU nationals from other states living in Scotland…. If Scotland was outside Europe, they would lose the right to stay here” (Scotsman, 14 July 2014). The SNP’s purely instrumental attitude to the EU has been evident once more over Brexit. Its interest in the 2016 referendum was in the publicity that Nicola Sturgeon could achieve by participating in televised debates and in the adverse publicity Brexit could achieve for the Westminster system. The extent of the SNP’s commitment to the EU cause was demonstrated by its spending more on by-elections in Shetland and Glenrothes than it spent on the EU referendum campaign.  

The SNP’s contradictions on Brexit have continued. In March 2019, Humza Yousaf, SNP Justice Minister, tweeted that “Not voting against No Deal is simply unforgivable, the chaos it would unleash would be catastrophic”. Yet during 2019, SNP MPs – under instruction from SNP HQ – voted time and again against the Brexit deals that Theresa May proposed, that would have won a softer Brexit and not risked no-deal. They abstained in the vote on a motion by Ken Clarke, Conservative MP, on whether the UK should remain in the EU’s Customs Union. It fell by six votes; there were at the time 35 SNP MPs. Had the SNP genuinely had the interests of the UK and the Remain side at heart, they would have cast their votes for the Clarke amendment and the UK would now be facing Brexit inside the Customs Union.  

By this time it had become clear that the EU issue was simply another one to be used to promote the SNP’s only real policy: leaving the UK. The prospect of Brexit, and of the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, loomed, and in the general election campaign of autumn 2019 the SNP campaigned relentlessly on preventing Brexit, as a recruiting tool for their secessionist cause. Two of its MPs, Ian Blackford and Kirsty Blackman, stated clearly on BBC Newsnight in November 2019 that Scots were faced with a choice between “Brexit Britain or an independent Scotland in the EU”. This choice was not in their gift, and it was utter chicanery to pretend that it was. Sturgeon herself told Andrew Neil in a TV interview that she was sure that a separate Scotland would gain access to the EU “quickly and easily”. Enough distraught Remainers believed this misinformation and returned an increased number of SNP MPs; 48 out of the 59 in Scotland. This was in spite of the fact that a separate Scotland would not be qualified to join the EU, on grounds of currency, central bank and deficit. Trying to qualify for EU membership would be a lengthy and very painful business. Distraught Remainers (of whom I am one) need to recognise that. 

The final act came in December 2020, when the SNP voted against the deal painstakingly hammered out between the EU and the UK. Whatever spin they put on it, they were voting for no-deal – because they were voting against the only deal on offer. The SNP led a similar charade in the Scottish parliament. This was much the same in demonstrating SNP priorities as when, in 2014, the SNP led the campaign to take Scotland out of the UK, having been told authoritatively that that would also mean leaving the EU. And that is something of which anyone who voted ‘yes’ in 2014, and anyone who contemplates voting for Scexit in future, needs continually to be reminded. Nationalists have, however, very selective memories. They claim that the ‘no’ campaign guaranteed that a No vote would keep Scotland in the EU in perpetuity. Yet Scotland’s Future had mentioned in 2013 the possibility of a referendum that would take the whole UK out of the EU (p. 217).  

Further, we know that the nationalist campaign is based on illusions. One of these has been particularly relevant in the recent dénouement of the Brexit negotiations. It is stated SNP policy that, if Scotland acceded to the EU, it would demand the scrapping or fundamental alteration of the Common Fisheries Policy. We do not need a crystal ball to envisage what the French, Spanish and Danish governments would respond to such a ‘demand’. 

We are now left with a position where Scottish civil servants have, on 31 December 2020, promoted the SNP’s claims about Scotland needing independence to enable them to join the EU. This is the latest, and arguably the worst, demonstration of how far party and state have been merged in SNP Scotland. It is also dishonest. The only answer is to hold Sturgeon to account. So I challenge her: make a formal request to the EU Commission about whether Scotland could join the EU while using (informally) the pound sterling as its currency – as per SNP party policy – with no control over its monetary policy, no central bank and no lender of last resort. I know what the answer is, and so does Ms Sturgeon. But let her test her claims by seeking a decision from the EU Commission. Of course, she won’t. And she will go on lying, and distraught Remainers will doubtless believe her.

Jill Stephenson is a former Professor of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh. 

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