EFTA: A lesson learned too late for Scotland

Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Dr. Jon Stanley


The SNP are now finally thinking about how to stay in the single market via some pre-packed solution. For Sturgeon it has all come too late.

This is Scotland in 2016, talking about joining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). All too late they've worked out that EFTA was always their ticket to independence before the UK voted to leave the EU. Now it is too late. Unless the UK as a whole rejoins EFTA - and is allowed to by Norway - it offers no substitute for the UK Single Market. Not even close.

It is true that Scotland is a far better fit for EFTA than the UK ever was, given its size and scope of its exports. Its true potential is reached via the European Economic Agreement (EEA) which is not EFTA. Scotland would swap little influence in the UK single market for very, very little influence in the EEA. It would not be without advantages though.

The EEA would give Scotland back control of farming and fishing, whilst allowing tariff-free access to a highly regulated market which would dictate every law of trade that governed Scotland. Could the EEA allow Scottish financial firms to trade preferentially with the EU? Yes, definitely. 

But unless the rest of the UK also stayed in the EEA, its advantages would be outweighed by the loss of the UK. Scotland's exports and ex-services to the UK, are largely of raw materials and commodities. Tariff-free access could be negotiated anyway for no contribution to the EU budget. 

Back in 2014, I wrote that EFTA was the way to go. As a Eurosceptic opposed to the pro-EU Better Together, I was stunned that the SNP never talked up EFTA as a substitute for EU membership. It would have been so much easier to achieve. It would have helped ensure the UK as a whole never left the single market by anchoring Scotland in the EEA.

ThinkScotland compiled a riposte to the SNP's White Paper on independence where I challenged them here to come clean on EEA membership. Nothing came of it.

Too much emphasis was placed on continuity of existing EU organisations instead of really appraising how we would be better off outside the UK. 

The SNP have been many things when it comes to Europe. Pro-EEC, anti-EEC, pro-EU, but at every turn they have been lazy.

Their policy has been reactionary and seeks merely to do the opposite of the UK as a whole instead of honestly weighing up the best solution for Scotland.

EFTA would have worked in 2014. The SNP never went for it. They blew the one chance they had to get this right. Now times are moving on. The EEA could still be used by the UK but only to facilitate leaving the single market over several years. 

No one serious is considering EEA membership in the long term. It can never be a meal in itself for a nation like the UK where making our own laws and permanent control of our borders is essential. If the EU were reasonable, we could have a ‘Liechtenstein Solution’ where we'd have EEA with full migration control. It isn't reasonable, that's why we left in the first place. 

If only the SNP had thought of this two years ago, so much would have been different. Thank heavens they didn't.

Dr. Jon Stanley is Health Research Fellow at the Bow Group, a Junior Doctor and a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons