The Report from the European and External Relations Committee on the Scottish Governments proposals for an independent Scotland: membership of the European Union.
I spoke in the debate on the report brought forward from the above committee. Below is what I said in the introduction to the debate and in the concluding comments. The whole debate can be found on the Parliament web site.
Alex Rowley (Cowdenbeath) (Lab): The committee’s report tells us two things. First, it tells us about the workings of the committee that produced it. Secondly, and more important, it tells us about the Scottish Government’s proposals for an independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union.
I make clear that the committee was split between members who want an independent Scotland and members who think that Scotland’s best interests will be served by remaining part of a strong United Kingdom, within Europe.
On an independent Scotland’s position in the EU, the evidence is that nothing is certain. Most witnesses thought that article 49 remains the most likely route to EU membership and that negotiations would be tough. The Scottish Government’s timescale for the negotiations remains highly optimistic, at best. It is clear that there would need to be amendments to all relevant treaties of the European Union, which would need to be unanimously agreed by all 28 member states.
What would be up for negotiation? The report highlighted important areas, such as the single currency opt-out. We might have to commit to joining the euro at our point of entry or later. Given that the Scottish Government is all over the place on the currency, and given that it would not be in an independent Scotland’s best interests to keep the pound and have no say over interest rates, money supply, the banks, employment targets or crisis measures, perhaps the euro is the nationalists’ plan B for a future currency.
On opt-outs on Schengen and justice and security measures, and on the rebate, which would have major financial implications for the people of Scotland, there is a consensus that tough negotiations would be needed, although nationalist ministers still insist that there would be no compromise.
The view of nationalist ministers is not shared by the many experts who gave evidence to the committee, as the report shows. Aidan O’Neill QC told the committee:
“One cannot assume that an independent Scotland will inherit all the benefits of the negotiations that have previously been carried out on behalf of the UK as a whole.”—[Official Report, European and External Relations Committee, 23 January 2014; c 1696.]
The director of the Surrey international law centre went further. He said:
“the fundamental flaw in … the White Paper is that it fails to acknowledge that the EU membership of an independent Scotland would require the agreement of the EU institutions and Member States, which may well decide not to offer Scotland opt-outs comparable to those that the UK would continue to enjoy”.
He went on to say that the nationalist Government’s white paper
“does not provide a realistic assessment of a probable and foreseeable outcome of the accession negotiations.”
I could quote many more experts in the field, all of whom said that negotiations with the EU would be tough. Are they all wrong? If our definition of “wrong” is “disagreeing with the wisdom of Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon”, I suppose that they are wrong.
However, there is far too much at stake for all the questions and issues to be brushed aside by nationalists who are set on independence at any cost. We know that there would be major concerns about the pensions of thousands of Scots because of EU rules on cross-border pensions, but such important issues are just brushed aside.
Stewart Stevenson: Will the member give way?
Alex Rowley: I intend to make progress.
If someone does not agree with Mr Salmond’s grand vision, they are wrong, whether they are an internationally recognised expert, the National Association of Pension Funds or the President of the European Commission.
Even with the amendments of the four nationalist members, which were, in my view, designed to shift the factual balance, the report sets out key evidence on the most important issues to face the Scottish people as we move forward to the referendum in September. To summarise the report, there is no clear route to Scotland’s EU membership within the EU treaties. The overwhelming legal view is that the correct process for an independent Scotland to follow would be article 49.
Stewart Stevenson: Will the member take an intervention?
Mike MacKenzie (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): Will the member take an intervention?
Alex Rowley: Yes.
Stewart Stevenson: Would the member—
Mike MacKenzie: Could the member—
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): Could you both sit down a moment, please?
Mr Rowley, whose intervention are you accepting?
Alex Rowley: The gentleman.
The Deputy Presiding Officer: Mr Mike MacKenzie?
Alex Rowley indicated agreement.
Mike MacKenzie: Mr Rowley is obviously concerned about the possibility of coming out of Europe, but with the United Kingdom Independence Party winning the elections in the rest of the UK just last week, does he not think that there is a high chance that the rest of the UK will come out of Europe?
Alex Rowley: There is widespread consensus that it is in Scotland’s interests—irrespective of whether it is part of the United Kingdom or whether the yes campaign is successful in September—to remain part of Europe. However, where that consensus breaks down, as the evidence given to the committee makes absolutely clear, is that doing so would not be straightforward if Scotland were independent, because there would be major negotiations and major risks to Scotland’s future.
As the report makes clear, the overwhelming legal view is that the correct process for an independent Scotland to follow is that in article 49 and that, regardless of the route taken to EU membership, the agreement of all 28 member states would be required. That is important—we would need 28 countries to sign up to the agreement. The timescales set out by the SNP are unrealistic in relation to continuing the existing UK opt-outs and rebates. However, it is clear that the SNP simply dismisses opposing arguments and other points of view, rather than engaging on the issues.
It is unclear what would happen if the SNP does not get everything that it wishes for. Would our future in Europe be less secure under the nationalist Government’s plans? Is it committed to giving the Scottish people an in/out referendum on EU membership if post-independence negotiations do not go its way? This is a major issue as we move forward, and I welcome the committee’s report, which gives a lot of information that people will be able to use.
I call Alex Rowley.
Alex Rowley: I will begin by picking up on Stewart Stevenson’s point about pensions. I bow to his expertise on the subject, but the fact is that the European Commission confirmed—on 26 March, I think—that cross-border private pension schemes would continue to be affected by the relevant regulations. That caused Joanne Segars, who is chief executive of the National Association of Pension Funds, to say:
“Today’s announcement of a new EU pension directive has major implications for pension schemes as part of the debate on independence for Scotland.”
That is not to say that we will not try to find solutions but the fact is that for many Scots that is a serious issue—this hits on the wider point that I am trying to make—because it is estimated that pension funds in the UK would have a deficit of about £250 billion. That applies to people who are employed in a lot of large organisations—for example, to the pension funds of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Royal Mail, HSBC, BT and BP and the universities pension scheme. For a lot of Scots, right now, it is a serious issue.
The main point that I have tried to get across is that it is not acceptable simply to dismiss arguments, dismiss issues, or, indeed, dismiss people if we do not accept their views or if they do not accept the view that is presented by the nationalists.
Mike MacKenzie: Does the member agree with me that the issue of fully funded pensions, irrespective of independence, is indeed an issue that we will all have to deal with and that there is perhaps some merit in the EU’s approach to the issue?
Alex Rowley: I do not want to get bogged down in a discussion on pensions. I simply make the point, in response to the point made by Mr Stevenson, that we cannot simply dismiss people’s legitimate concerns about legitimate issues. However, that seems to be the approach of the nationalist Government: “If you don’t agree with us, you’re wrong and we’re right.” That is the point that needs to be picked up.
As we move forward, we need to be able to have an honest debate on the key issues that are impacting on the people of Scotland so that people have all the facts in front of them and are able to make a decision that is based on those facts. It will then be for us as parliamentarians to accept that decision, but people cannot continue to dismiss every argument just because they do not agree with it.
Clare Adamson said that she was surprised that I could welcome the report. I do welcome the report: as Christina McKelvie said, the clerks and committee advisers did a really good job of pulling together all the evidence that was given, which was why I and two of my colleagues on the committee supported the draft report, which was neutral and presented the different opinions. Sadly, the nationalist committee members tried to skew the report with the amendments that were put forward.
Today we have heard umpteen times about Graham Avery and the evidence that he gave. I accept that Graham Avery has a specific opinion, but he was really the only person to argue that the 18-month timescale that the nationalist Government set out to gain EU membership was achievable. All the other evidence said that that timescale was not realistic.
Humza Yousaf: The UK Government’s legal adviser, Professor James Crawford, said that the timescale was “realistic”. Does Alex Rowley disagree with the UK Government’s legal adviser on this matter?
Alex Rowley: I am saying that, apart from Graham Avery’s evidence, the evidence that the committee took was overwhelmingly that the timescale set by the Scottish Government would be very difficult to achieve.
That was the point about the report. The nationalist members of the committee wanted to pick and choose the quotations that best suited their argument and bring them forward into the debate.
Maureen Watt: Will the member give way?
Clare Adamson: Will the member give way?
Alex Rowley: I am sorry; I have to make progress.
Willie Rennie made the key argument when he talked about certainty and uncertainty.
We could argue about whether the route into Europe would be article 48 or article 49, even though the overwhelming legal view is that article 49 is the correct way—that is set out clearly in the report, for anyone who reads it. However, the key issue is whether we would be able to negotiate a position with the 28 countries in Europe when our negotiating starting point is that we are going to win every argument. When training as a trade unionist and shop steward from 17 years old, I was certainly never taught that the starting point in negotiations should be that you are basically going to win every argument.
Yes, it is a myth to suggest that we would not be in Europe, but the important question that needs to be flagged up for the people of Scotland is: on what terms would we be in Europe? Would it be the same terms and conditions that successive UK Governments have negotiated over many years? If not, what would be the implications of that?
The Deputy Presiding Officer: You should draw to a close, please.
Alex Rowley: In speaking to the cabinet secretary previously about Schengen, I am on record as making the point that it would be difficult to break down barriers with the rest of Europe and put them up with the rest of the UK.
The Deputy Presiding Officer: You will have to close, Mr Rowley, please.
Alex Rowley: However, what is at risk is the rebate of £350 million a year for Scotland.
The Deputy Presiding Officer: Mr Rowley, you will have to close, please.
Alex Rowley: We need to be honest with the people of Scotland in this debate.