Leigh Wilson: EFTA is the third way compromise independence supporters should get behind

Ben Wray

Leigh Wilson, SNP councillor for the Mearns ward in Aberdeenshire, says that he has changed his mind on the question of EU membership for an independent Scotland, and is now convinced joining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) is the best compromise position for the Scottish Government to pursue

BASKING in the seasonal glow of the summer glory – white hot as Lou Reed would poetically refer to it – I could easily be forgiven for thinking that Scotland has geographically repositioned itself to the south of Europe; metamorphosing into a bona fida template of siesta serenity and olive oil consumption, neighbouring our Mediterranean friends of Spain, Portugal and Greece.

While the climatic temperature may be symmetrical though, the economic similarities are much harder to find. Following years of austerity imposed by the Troika, Spain now has the highest youth employment in Europe, a currency it is unable to devalue, and an unashamedly authoritarian government all too content to delegitimise democratically elected provinces in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Italy has found itself on a democratic precipice after recently electing a coalition with an intransigent commitment to closing its borders and reneging on unrealistic debt repayments. Greece’s economic problems have been comprehensively detailed, most eloquently by the redoubtable Yanis Varoufakis, and so we are therefore presented with a trio of countries in the same region who together have a commonality of economic challenges.

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The specific circumstances in these countries and how they relate to the other parts of Europe largely, though not universally, helps diagnose some of the practical difficulties in the EU. If we contrast the southern states to the north, especially how they relate to the mercantilist attributes of a country like Germany, the obvious divergences here are a cause for concern. Now, it may be a result of the uncharacteristic heat, or indeed the effects of copious recess glasses of Chardonnay, but I have been doing some serious reflection.

I have previously written voluminous pieces explaining why I am astutely European and committed to the wider European project – that is unflinchingly still the case – but in these tribalistic times there may be a more nuanced, pragmatic approach needed to reach that destination.

The need to appease disparate voters within party memberships on the European question is relevant to all parties, but it is most prescient in the SNP because of how it relates to the separate, but intrinsically connected, independence question. I recently had a discussion with a senior SNP MP regarding the dichotomy of trying to unify a party around a policy – a reversal of Brexit and a swift resumption of full EU membership – when almost 40 per cent of that party’s support is, at the very least, ambivalent to that position.

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The conversation centred around the principled position of being seen to do the right thing – Brexit is, of course, demonstrably the wrong thing – but the problem therein lies of having a position which is immune to much in the way of compromise. Intransigent principle in politics is often warmly welcomed but then quietly discarded as negotiations take place and solution are sought which are resolute, harmonised and lasting.

As far as European enthusiasm goes, there are few more European, or indeed integrationist, advocates than me. Despite my misgivings with some of his domestic policies, I largely share Emanuel Macron’s diagnosis of the problems in the EU, and indeed the radical remedies he has thus far outlined. In a world which is becoming infinitely smaller it is both necessary and inevitable that Europe becomes more integrated, increasingly dynamic and inexorably frictionless. Only by facing up to these realities of the modern world can we successfully confront them. As an aside, this isn’t an argument against smaller nation states; paradoxically, it is an argument in support of their contribution to the wider cause. Large, imperial countries are part of the hypothetical disintegration of Europe as opposed to being part of the solution.

With that rather loquacious explanation of my methodology, I have now come to question the Scottish Government’s current position on Europe. It is now almost unquestionable that the UK will leave the EU. However unfortunate I find that situation to be, however democratically illegitimate I attest to find it, however misguided I believe the negotiators are, it is happening. As I write this it seems increasingly certain that the Tory party is set to become the target of a right-wing coup – yes, an even more extreme cabinet is possible – led by Boris Johnson. The jingoistic hysteria encapsulating the Tories seems almost inescapable. The debate then moves from retroactive positions to proactive solutions.

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Unfortunately, however, public opinion has largely failed to shift as rapidly as I would have liked; a fatalistic attitude permeates – in part established by Brexiteers on all sides who refuse to acknowledge an alternative is available – and a call for a swift return to full EU membership, I fear, risks closing the debate down altogether. People are fatigued with the intensity with which they have had to make historic decisions and asking them to make another, at this stage, would probably be unwise.

I have therefore been convinced by the argument that there is a third way – however Clintonian that phrase sounds – and we should instead be campaigning for membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). There are many wonderful benefits of full EU membership – I have referenced them often enough – but the most essential benefit that Scotland can have is access to the free market.

EFTA has both the benefit of making free market access possible, while simultaneously providing a more palatable option for those who are concerned with the direction of the EU. I expect Scotland in the future to have a more intimate relationship with Europe, but the most pressing issue right now is the integrity of our economy. I want a feasible solution which facilitates that while bringing people together. The satirical cohort of charlatans currently negotiating Brexit will never manage that.

Picture courtesy of Nærings- og fiskeridepartementet