Scotland & the EU: Auld acquaintances

Michael Russell, Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, tells Martin Banks that an independent Scotland’s path to re-joining the EU would be helped by its unique experience of already having been part of the bloc for 47 years.
Michael Russell, Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs | Photo credit: Press Association

By Martin Banks

28 Jul 2020

Scotland has a “great deal to offer and to gain” as an independent, post-Brexit member of the EU. So says Michael Russell, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs in the Scottish Parliament who, in an exclusive interview with The Parliament Magazine, warns of an “unambitious, low deal” between the EU and the UK.

His comments come in the wake of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s efforts to inject “a tiger in the tank” of the protracted Brexit negotiations between the two sides, which are set to continue over the summer.

Russell says he is concerned about the UK already starting talks with the US over a possible new Free Trade Agreement (FTA), arguing that, “Any claimed benefits to Scotland of a US free trade deal would be through derived demand for energy consumption, due to energy production being disproportionately based in Scotland, rather than a significant increase in Scottish exports.”

A UK Government analysis, he says, “showed that young people will be disproportionately negatively affected by a US trade deal and the risks to food and environmental standards are well known. The analysis also showed that an FTA could increase outputs from carbon intensive sectors and increase emissions by diverting trade to a distant market – this is in stark conflict with Scotland’s transition to a low carbon economy, and our net zero commitments.”

“It has never been clearer that the only way for Scotland to be in the EU with a direct voice, and able to avoid the long-term damage of Brexit, is to become an independent country. That is clearly one of the major factors in the rising level of support for independence”

Loss of frictionless trade with the EU could lower GDP by 6.1 percent by 2030 he warns, adding, “by contrast, the UK Government’s analysis shows an FTA with the US would only increase UK GDP by up to 0.16 percent - this fails to make up for the loss of trade from leaving the EU’s Single Market. In 2019, the Treasury’s own figures showed that signing free trade agreements with all English-speaking countries, including the US, would increase GDP by less than 0.2-0.4 percent by 2030,” says Russell, who has served in several ministerial posts in Scotland.

The Scottish Government, said Russell, “does not feel this is the right time to engage with the US on free trade negotiations. A comprehensive agreement and close relationship with the EU must be the UK Government’s priority and an FTA with the US or any other country must not come at the expense of this.”

He goes on, “Despite repeated calls for Scottish interests and standards to be protected by prioritising EU trade talks over a US deal, the UK Government published its negotiating objectives for an agreement without any meaningful engagement with the Scottish Government.”

Russell, who represents the constituency of Argyll and Bute, believes the UK will regret its failure to extend transition talks with the EU, saying, “It simply will not be possible for businesses and others to prepare for the new relationship with the EU, whatever that may look like, by the end of the year. The COVID-19 pandemic has only reduced their capacity further. It is for this reason that we called on the Prime Minister to seek an extension to the transition period. Unfortunately, we are now at a stage where the chance of an extension is all but gone and, as ever, the UK Government has ignored the wishes of most people in Scotland.”

The SNP politician warns, “I strongly believe that the UK Government will regret not requesting an extension.” This and Brexit itself hastens the push for Scottish independence, he argues, he adds “It has never been clearer that the only way for Scotland to be in the EU with a direct voice, and be able to avoid the long-term damage of Brexit, is to become an independent country. That is clearly one of the major factors in the rising level of support for independence.”

Russell, a professor of governance and Scottish culture, notes, “The mandate we have, to o­ffer the Scottish people a choice over their future, is, by any normal standard of democracy, unarguable. The Scottish Government is currently focussed on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and this has paused work on independence but, extraordinarily, the UK Government has decided to press on with its damaging Brexit plans throughout the crisis.”

He remains pessimistic about a deal being done over the summer, saying, “The two sides seem little closer to agreeing a deal. The key areas of disagreement remain, including level playing field provisions, governance arrangements and fisheries. Without some level of compromise in these it is difficult to see how an agreement can be done by October to allow time for ratification, and the UK Government have made clear that they see little scope for such compromise. But it is essential to remember, even if there is a deal, it will be an unambitious ‘low deal’ which will cause long-term economic harm.”

“An independent Scotland would apply to join the EU in its own right. It’s important to recognise that Scotland’s path to re-joining will be helped by our unique experience among candidate countries of already having been part of the bloc for 47 years”

The impacts of leaving the Single Market - “whenever we leave” - are bad for the Scottish economy, he asserts, predicting that “billions of pounds would be wiped from a Scottish economy already hit hard by COVID-19”. Adding, “The cumulative loss of economic activity from leaving the EU would be up to £3bn over those two years, with the long-term losses far greater.”

Looking to the future, he states, “An independent Scotland would apply to join the EU in its own right. It’s important to recognise that Scotland’s path to re-joining will be helped by our unique experience among candidate countries of already having been part of the bloc for 47 years.” And he adds, “Scotland, of course, has a great deal to offer as well as to gain.”

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