Voices Live: Should an independent Scotland join the EEA instead of the European Union?

The Scottish Government has long insisted that an independent Scotland would re-join the European Union.

But Alex Salmond argues that a preferable destination would be the European Economic Area (EEA) with its membership of the EU’s internal market.

This could create more problems than it solves.

The EEA was established in 1994 with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein as its members alongside all the EU member states, so today it has 30 members. All these states must agree for a new state (from the EU or EFTA) to join the EEA.

Notably, since 1994, 16 countries have successfully acceded to the EU, while not one has chosen the EEA route. That includes three former EFTA (European Free Trade Association) countries – Austria, Finland and Sweden – joining the EU in 1995. In fact, the Norwegian government wanted to join the EU but that was rejected in a referendum.

One big plus of being in the EU is full representation in the European Parliament, Council and Commission plus a vote and say in decisions on the myriad of laws that underpin the EU internal market. Consultation processes within the EEA are much weaker.

In 2012, a Norwegian review of its EEA membership concluded, in the words of its chairman, professor Fredrik Sejersted, that there was a “great democratic deficit… but this is a kind of national compromise since Norway decided it did not want to join the EU”.

Scotland’s ‘remain’ vote in 2016 does not suggest it would choose such a democratic deficit.

Mr Salmond argues that joining the EEA could be quicker and that Scotland could, if it wanted, join the EU later. But the key determinant of speed of rejoining the EU would be Scotland’s divergence from EU laws in the meantime. And that would impact on the speed of joining the EEA too. Nor could formal talks start until Scotland was independent.

Certainly, there will need to be transition arrangements into the EU or EEA. But EU accession candidates normally agree a tailored Association Agreement; the EEA is not a transition route. To join the EU, Scotland would need to clarify its position on currency and be ready to move to its own currency after a few years. But that is entirely feasible.

Being in the EEA or EU raises considerable issues on borders. There would be a major regulatory border with England and Wales (less so with Northern Ireland) in both set-ups. But in the EEA, there would also be a customs border with the EU, meaning no open border in either direction. In the EU, Scotland would face a hard customs and regulatory border to England but an open border to the EU.

Mr Salmond suggests an independent Scotland could form a customs union with the UK nations. But EFTA states must aim to join existing EFTA trade deals – tricky not to say impossible if Scotland was in a customs union with the rest of the UK.

There is a view that EEA membership would benefit Scotland’s fisheries sector. But the EU-UK trade deal has surely put paid to the idea that the EU would simply allow an independent Scotland into the EEA without a separate and good deal on access to fishing waters.

In the end, an internationally recognised, independent Scotland could apply to join the EU or the EEA. But  in the EEA it would have little say over the huge range of EU internal market laws. And being in a customs union with the UK would mean following its trade policy. It would be a rather pale form of independence for little obvious gain.

Kirsty Hughes is director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations www.scer.scot

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