First Minster Plays Long Game in Push to Stay In Single Market

By Paul McLennan in our Edinburgh office.

So Nicola Sturgeon must be seen to be doing all she can to make things work. Scotland’s place in Europe is a “serious” and “reasonable” compromise, she said, as she launched the 50-page book yesterday. The Scottish Government will argue for what is in the best interests of not just Scotland but the whole of the UK.

Although she talked resolutely of her unwavering commitment to Scottish independence yesterday, it is the last option, the nuclear button. If Scots were asked the same question again, the polls suggest they’d vote as they did in 2014 (perhaps ironically, Sturgeon pointed out that had Scots backed indy two years ago we wouldn’t be in this Brexit mess).

The first strand of the First Minister’s plan is for the Scottish Government to influence Theresa May’s Government so that the UK remains in the single market through the European Economic Area (EEA) and the EU Customs Union.

She did, however, acknowledge that doing so could prove immensely challenging and therefore presented her second strand, which was for Scotland to forge its own relationship with the EU while remaining in the UK.

Although senior UK Government figures have ruled out a separate Scottish EU deal as being totally impractical, Ms Sturgeon suggested Scotland could stay within the single market even if the rest of the UK leaves the EEA.

Scotland could become a full or associate member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Commonly known as the “Norway option”, Ms Sturgeon’s paper said this would mean Scotland being party to the EEA agreement.

According to the First Minister, both options would need to be underpinned by a substantial transfer of power to Edinburgh.

Key areas to be considered for further devolution included: immigration; import and export control; competition law; social security and energy rights.

The paper argues there would need to be repatriation of devolved matters such as agriculture, fisheries, education, aspects of health, justice and environmental protection which have been governed by EU law.

The paper further calls for the repatriation of some areas which are currently looked after by Westminster including employment law and health and safety legislation. Ms Sturgeon described the paper as a “compromise” given that her preferred option was for an independent Scotland within the EU.

What Next?

In my opinion, the worst thing the UK government could do with the plans is to trash them.

That’s because, in the end, what’s most at stake in not just Scottish independence but the better and less centralised governance of the UK.

If that means that Scotland exerts effective pressure on the May Government to avoid a hard Brexit, then fine.

If Theresa May does not agree to the Scottish Government proposals, the First Minister may press ahead with plans to hold a second independence referendum.

The Scottish Government would first bring a bill before Holyrood, probably sometime before the end of this parliamentary year. While the SNP has not got a majority, support from the pro-independence Scottish Greens would allow the legislation to pass.

Once done, a Section 30 order, would be required from Westminster, allowing the referendum to be held.

This of course may all depend on the terms that the UK negotiates with the EU over Brexit and any additional powers coming to Scotland.

The stakes are high.

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