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How Scotland gets back into the EU

The SNP’s Europe spokesman, Alyn Smith, knows it won’t be easy, but the party can now see its path back to EU membership

Alyn Smith, SNP Candidate for Stirling meets with voters on the streets of Stirling on November 19, 2019 ahead of the general election. Photo: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images

You’d have to search very, very hard around the corridors of the Palace of Westminster to find a bigger Europhile than Alyn Smith MP.

Like a stick of rock he has Europe written right through him. He admits that, having fought to the last for a Remain win in 2016, the result left him bereft.

“From 2016 onwards I was showing every sign of burnout, I had depression, it was tough,” says the SNP MP for Stirling and the party’s spokesman for Europe and EU Accession.

Smith, 49, studied European Law at university, had a spell on the Erasmus programme at the University of Heidelberg and gained a Masters degree in European Studies in Warsaw. It’s fair to say he’s with the programme.

He still finds it hard to believe the harm that the UK inflicted on itself seven years ago, and rarely misses an opportunity to raise the issue in the Commons while other MPs gaze at their shoes. At the start of this year, sick of being attacked for refusing to shut up, he publicly pledged to cease talking about Brexit. His vow of silence lasted just a few weeks.

“There’s been a vow of omertà on both sides of the House,” he says. “The Tories dare not speak about it because that’s just opening up all their fissures which still exist, but which they’re pretending don’t.”

“And to their immense discredit the Labour Party is not talking about it because they’re not willing to scare the horses. If we are at the stage where even the Lib Dems can’t give an answer about whether we want to get back in then it’s really dangerous stuff.”

Any doubt that Smith is an EU evangelist evaporates when he turns to one of the reasons we arrived at the 2016 referendum in the first place. Far from seeing constant UK government headline-grabbing friction with Brussels and opt outs as the price to pay for keeping Brexit headbangers at bay, Smith believes these actions were the beginning of the end.

“The UK rebate was ruinous for the UK’s engagement with EU programmes – likewise the opt out from the euro,” he insists. “It just entrenched that arms-length, squeamishness and sniffiness that then grew up around the EU.”

“Ultimately David Cameron’s pitch in 2016 was, ‘yeah we’ve got a really good deal that gets us away from most of this stuff’, but they were not making the case for solidarity, making the case for engagement. They didn’t and they lost. We did it in Scotland and we won.”

Smith says his party will go into all forthcoming elections with a simple message. A vote for the SNP is a vote for both independence and Europe. The two are bound tightly together.

The message is currently being obscured by the party’s travails over finances, which has resulted in a police investigation, and the arrest and release of the former leader Nicola Sturgeon. Like all long-term incumbent parties there’s a slight whiff of decay around the edges, a new leader struggling to make a mark and opposition parties sensing gains to be made.

For Smith these things are transitory. The party has recovered before, he says, most recently after the former SNP leader Alex Salmond faced charges of sexual assault. He was acquitted on all counts, then went on to found his own political party. 

Europe is a key reason for his optimism. “A lot of people in Scotland are very transactional about which union serves us best,” he says. “Before, having the best of both worlds – the UK and the EU – was a very powerful and potent message. But remember in the 2014 referendum that still only got the pro-union side 55 per cent of the vote. And now we don’t have the best of both anymore. We are stuck with this.”

He believes voters in Scotland will be looking for clarity. The Tories will be offering the Union and very little else. Labour, he claims, will treat Scotland like a branch office with nothing to say on Europe. His party will be clear. A referendum on independence and a return to Europe will be on offer.

Smith served as an MEP from 2004-19 and in one of his last speeches he famously told his European Parliamentary colleagues that the country would be back. “I am asking you to leave a light on so we can find our way home,” he told them, to warm applause.

Today the route appears more circuitous and the light a little dimmer. Smith admits there are a lot of hurdles to clear before accession becomes a possibility. But he sees advantages in joining as an independent state, a very different prospect to the time of the 2014 independence referendum, when the SNP argued that Scotland could accede as a territory already within the EU. There was, he now admits, no legal framework for this and very few member nations would have accepted a position that might open the door for other separatist movements.

Now Scotland would be applying in the “normal way”. The Scottish Government continues to keep the EU abreast of its thinking and will publish its detailed roadmap to Europe soon.

It must address two big issues. Firstly, can an independent Scotland really convince the EU that it should keep the pound? This is current SNP policy. While six EU members are working towards joining the euro, only Denmark has an opt out and this is because it was already a member of the European Communities when Maastricht was agreed. 

Secondly will Scotland be able to comply with stability and growth pact requirements concerning the ratio between GDP and public expenditure, something often considered an Achilles Heel for supporters of Scottish independence.

Dr Arianna Andreangeli, Senior Lecturer in European Law at the University of Edinburgh, views the pact question as more problematic than the euro issue. “Scotland as an independent country is very likely to have significant budget shortfalls and will have to show concrete commitments toward adhering to these requirements,” she says.

What is beyond doubt for Dr Andreangeli is the damage being done to Scotland by Brexit. “It is plain to see and beyond discussion,” she says.

Those shortfalls are highlighted every year at the annual bun fight between unionists and nationalists around the publication of the GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) calculations. In brief, the figures highlight Scotland’s “balance of payments” – what it raises in taxation against what it spends. The numbers inevitably reveal that Scotland’s public spending is subsidised by the UK Treasury, with a deficit this year estimated to be £19bn. This shortfall will loom large over any debate about an independent Scotland joining the EU.

Smith dismisses this fiscal argument as “a snapshot of finances under the union”. Echoing a frequent Salmond argument when he was leader, Smith claims independence will allow Scotland to take control of the revenues from its oil and gas fields. It will also help pay for the country’s transition to green energy.

“I believe Scotland will be a net contributor to the EU rather than us being a recipient,” he insists. “I maintain that what we might miss from the UK will be small beer compared to what we will be getting back into.”

The current SNP policy is “sterlingisation”, which would involve creating a new Scottish currency that would be pegged to the British pound. Smith goes along with that idea, but says the party will have to take “real world” decisions about joining the euro.

“I think the antipathy to the euro has changed a lot in the last few years,” he says. He acknowledges there is a “cottage industry” in the SNP for those dreaming and working towards a Scottish currency but “it’s all really emotional, about totems, rather than anything else”.

“I would personally far rather argue for acceding into the euro because it exists in a way that an independent Scottish currency does not,” he says simply.

Despite polls suggesting that Labour is gaining in Scotland, Smith claims Labour will be successfully squeezed by the Conservative culture war at the next election. As a result, while he would prefer the SNP to work with a winning Starmer government, he thinks a hung Parliament is possible, with his party holding significant bargaining chips.

The first thing on the SNP agenda in this scenario is to obtain a Section 30 order under the Scotland Act, which would give the Scottish government power to hold another independence referendum. The Holyrood election of 2025 would be fought on that basis and a re-elected SNP government would hold an independence referendum within six to 18 months.

“If we get ‘Yes’, we start negotiations with the EU right there,” he says. “I don’t think we are talking about a fantasy timetable.”

Before we end he can’t resist one last assertion about post-2016 Scotland.

“Many Scots have been proudly Scottish, proudly British and proudly European,” he says. “Since Brexit the British bit has lost its sheen.” 

He praises TNE for being “one of the very few outlets who are looking under the hood of this,” before returning to work on the book he’s writing about Europe and how we got into the mess we are in.

“It felt more like a therapy session,” he says of our interview. 

Michael Gilson is a former editor of The Scotsman and the Belfast Telegraph. His book on the history of the British suburban garden is published by Reaktion early next year

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