Is EFTA an Option?

This week, we're running a series of articles on Brexit. Neil Davidson analysed the limitations of left remain arguments, while Sarah Collins offered a strategic post-Brexit road map. Later this week, one writer break down issues with the single market, but Fraser Wilson argues it's in Scotland's interest to pursue EFTA/EEA membership should the opportunity arise...

When I began writing this piece, I was visiting my parents in Switzerland. As I continued writing, I travelled over the border to where I was staying in France. The fact France is a European Union (EU) member and Switzerland isn't made no difference to the lack of difficulty I had crossing the border. Switzerland, for the moment, has full access to the European single market and that includes freedom of movement. This is possible thanks to a series of bi-lateral trade agreements the country negotiated at the turn of the millennium, allowing for participation in the market as long as EU law was complied with.

Back in 1992, the Swiss population narrowly voted against joining the European Economic Area (EEA), which contains all EU states along with single market states such as Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. It serves as a reminder that exceptionalism is entrenched in the EU's very nature – specifically, you don't have to be a full EU member to enjoy some of its benefits.

All this is relevant when we look at the quandary Scotland faces. The SNP believe “the people of Scotland should have a choice about [their] future”, whereas Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson believes there's no grounds for a second independence referendum since “the SNP have U-turned on immediate EU membership”.

It's worth pointing out, though, that immediate EU member was never going to be an option this time around. This was disputed in 2014 (there were some baffling of interpretations of EU treaties with regards to the “internal enlargement” question on the part of the then European Commission President Barroso), but it's unquestionable now. The UK will leave the EU in just over a year's time, and Scotland will leave with it.

Whatever way we spin it, this means that Scotland will find itself outside the EU even if it re-emerges as a sovereign nation after a Yes vote in any hypothetical independence referendum. Many pro-independence voters find the concept of Scotland starting life outside of the EU frightening, but it presents a number of opportunities. And for those of who identify as socialists, it would be an opportunity to build the country we aspired to in 2014.

In that independence scenario, we ought to be cautious in regards to beginning accession negotiations with the EU through Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. Campaigns like Radical Independence and think tanks like Common Weal may hold visions that are diametrically opposed to what a Tory Brexit represents, but that's not to say the EU is the vehicle best suited to achieve such visions.

Scots would have a unique opportunity to decide its future relationship with Europe: would we rejoin the EU, seek an associate membership as part of the EEA or the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) or something else? As socialists we must be practical about which solution best suits our eventual aims: I'd argue our vision is more easily achieve through EEA/EFTA membership than full EU membership.

EFTA is a free trade area currently consisting of four European states: Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. None of them are apart of the European Customs Union, but all of them participate in the European Single Market. The UK has ruled out joining EFTA, but this is partly due to the country's relative size. It would be a more realistic solution for Scotland, with our population of 5 million.

It’s unlikely 62% of Scots agree with full membership of the EU per se, but rather 62% agree with the benefits of the single market which the EU brings, which are available via other avenues. The lower turnout for the EU referendum in Scotland than in England might explain this. But this also leads onto the wider socialist critique that the single market is wedded to neo-liberalism and can obstruct the progression of genuine socialist policies.

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After all, the 2014 independence campaign strongly anchored itself in opposition to the austerity and privatisation implemented by the ruling Conservative Party and effectively supported by the Labour Party of the time, but many in the movement did not extend that opposition to the European level.

But that's partially why the practicality of EEA/EFTA options weren't discussed. The EU as an institution certainly shares similar capitalist values to the UK government. Thanks to the various treaties and laws in place, even short term policies such as renationalising the railways and nationalising the power grid would be difficult to achieve within the EU.

So, why is being part of the EEA still an important option? In the short term, it makes sense from an industrial perspective. The EEA doesn't require membership of either the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Paying specific attention to fisheries, it's interesting to compare the performance of Scottish and Norwegian industries since the turn of the century. In the 2000-2015 period, the value of Scottish catches – that is, within the CFP – increased by 6%. That same figure for non-CFP participating Norway is 40%.

There would be other practical benefits: the issue of 'accepting' Euro membership and hypothetical Spanish vetoes become non-existent. And significantly, EEA members are not within the EU’s Customs Union, which means an independent Scotland would be able to sign trade agreements with countries outside of the single market, and that would include the remaining United Kingdom.

The merits of single market membership will continue to generate debate on the left about what this means in relation to capital and labour, but if we're looking for options in the short term then it's worth considering that it remains the only major proviso of EEA membership. Jean-Claude's 2017 White Paper on the Future of the European Union laid out five separate visions for the the future of the polity, demonstrating that no one can be certain of what it will look like in even a few years time.

It's also worth considering what we'll be leaving behind. Emmanuel Macron, the neo-liberal French President elected last year, proposes the formation of a Eurozone budget, parliament and dedicated Eurozone finance minister. Meanwhile, an ascendant German far-right has had an adverse impact on the authority of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has elected to form yet another grand coalition in Germany.

The issued faced by two of the EU's two most influential member states, who both adhere to a stringent neo-liberal framework, makes the institution's foundation look a little weaker than before. We should consider this if an independent Scotland is to simultaneously hold influence and be ripe for radical policy making.

Scotland is regularly described, like many other non-sovereign territories within the EU, as a Europhile independentist nation, a national territory where there exists a majority that advocate European participation. Catalonia is another example of this, with EU membership being a core facet of the Generalitat's agenda. Time will only tell whether the EU's silence on Spain's treatment of Catalan voters on the referendum day will sew doubt in people's minds about the EU's claims to hold values of respect for freedom and democracy.

But being a Europhile doesn't need to mean EU-phile, and we as socialists should always consider the most genuinely internationalist option. Would EU membership best serve our interests or would they lead to the same barriers to progress that exist in the UK? EFTA or EEA membership would effectively bypass those areas, whilst providing access to the European Single Market – an option which, for now, socialists should not rule out.

@FraserWilson95