Here’s why Scotland back in the EU would be the best option

SCOTLAND’S relationship with Europe is paramount. There can be no doubt that raising awareness and encouraging debate on this issue is important in preparing for independence.

It is generally thought that it would serve an independent Scotland better to join an international organisation at the earliest opportunity. Within the independence movement there has been some debate about the relative merits of joining the European Union (EU) or the European Free Trade Association (Efta) and the European Economic Area (EEA). How do these options compare?

The EEA combines all the countries of the EU and three of the current Efta countries into a single free-trade market. The fourth Efta country, Switzerland, is not in the EEA and has a separately negotiated treaty with the EU. Membership of the EEA is gained through the EU or Efta.

Efta was created in 1960 by seven countries: Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. It was later joined by Iceland, Finland, and Lichtenstein. Of these 10 member states, four remain and six left to join the EU.

The Efta countries are not part of the EU customs union or common agriculture and fisheries policies or various other policies. This gives them a degree of freedom to negotiate trade agreements with other countries, as long as these do not contravene existing obligations to the EU. Efta countries abide by the trading standards and laws of the EU because EEA law is in most circumstances identical in substance to EU law. Efta countries do not have ministers or seats at the Council of the EU nor the EU Parliament, and are not involved in choosing the EU Commission (the EU civil service).

The EU is the dominant force in Europe. Following the horrors of the Second World War, it was created with the aim of fostering solidarity and peace in Europe, and application for membership is open to all countries in Europe that agree with its principles and values.

Only countries with full EU membership are “rule makers”. Joining Efta, would make Scotland a “rule taker” and it would continue to suffer a democratic deficit. On this basic level, the EU would appear the better option but what other considerations are there?

It has been argued that it will be quicker to join Efta. This would be of little use as the EEA and bilateral agreements would also have to be agreed. Equally, it cannot be ruled out that Scotland, as a past member of the EU for nearly 50 years, would have a swift entry to the EU.

Either way, the suggested speed advantage of an Efta application disappears when we consider the possibility of an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU, an often-overlooked option. An AA is in essence a trade agreement that allows an applicant country to benefit from tariff-free trade and other benefits with the EU while working towards full membership.

It is noteworthy that negotiating an AA would not take long, estimated by experts from three months to a year. This renders the speed advantage for Efta membership redundant.

Many countries have struck an Association Agreement with the EU, to their considerable benefit. Having an EU Association Agreement might well shield Scotland from a resentful or otherwise hostile Westminster.

Crucially, EU membership has many other advantages over Efta membership. Being part of the EU would place Scotland at the centre of Europe, reaping the benefits of and contributing to future developments within the European social, cultural, political, economic and environmental spheres.

Would Scotland not suffer more of a democratic deficit being one of 28 nations? Small and medium-sized countries have a proportionally larger number of seats in the European Parliament, much in Scotland’s favour. In some ways, the question is irrelevant because the European Parliament works in groupings, across nations, where Scottish MEPs can join forces with similar minded MEPs from other countries. In the Council and the European Court of Justice, Scotland would be represented by one member like all the other countries, regardless of size. In many cases, a Scottish minister would have a veto, which adds to the power that Scotland would exercise.

I suspect Scots would want to play a role in European developments rather than just observing from the sidelines. Whatever happens in the EU will have a strong effect on nearly all aspects of Scottish life. Currently, the Scottish electorate appears to firmly favour EU membership by a significant margin. It works both ways: The EU would welcome what Scotland has to offer.

When it comes to Scotland’s relationship with Europe, joining the EU is probably the better option by far.

Peter Glissov, Edinburgh, 24 February 2024