Agenda; Deal with Northern Ireland to give access to single market post-Brexit

LATER today I shall meet the Scottish Government’s Brexit Minister, Michael Russell, and use the opportunity to set out the case for Scotland and Northern Ireland being granted a trade agreement with the European Economic Area (EEA) that would retain access to the single market: essential for our economy and jobs. This could only be done with the support of the UK Government and the EU. It would also need the influence wielded by the Republic of Ireland as a member of the EU.

Why is such an arrangement necessary? It is possible with goodwill amongst the parties. They are searching desperately for an amicable Brexit solution. It also has political and economic benefits for all parties. At first sight, it seemed left field but, as the months have rolled by, it has gained traction. It would not be necessary if the UK Government were able to deliver a soft Brexit to retain the single market. But the pressures to control immigration in the south are so great that the Prime Minister would struggle to do other than protect major industries such as Nissan and financial services in the City of London.

Scotland cannot do this alone. The First Minister’s negotiating hand would strengthen if public opinion showed increasing demand for a second independence referendum. This is not happening. Whitehall will not consent to a bespoke Scottish solution lest it adds to the case for independence. So that is a major barrier. If Scotland is toothless, the key problem for the UK Government is to keep Northern Ireland in the Union. It needs to protect its relationships with both Northern Ireland and a geographically isolated Republic of Ireland. Herein lies the problem of dealing with the customs union and control of immigration.

The first test of the “Celtic Corridor” is how to bridge the problem. As both Northern Ireland and Scotland are not sovereign states, they are not eligible for membership of the European Free Trade Association like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Any agreement would have to involve the EEA council and the EU. If there were goodwill towards Scotland and Northern Ireland because they voted for the EU, there could be a trade agreement which would give them access to the single market, provided both committed to the cardinal principles of the single market, namely free movement of people and capital.

The Celtic Corridor is a misnomer. It is a British solution for a British Brexit retaining both Scotland and Northern Ireland in the Union by facilitating access to the single market demanded by Scottish business. It would cement the unity of the UK. This is a very odd horse to come from a Nationalist stable such as mine but it recognises the twin decisions of both the independence and European referendums in which Scotland voted to stay in both the UK and the EU.

The proposal to be discussed with the Mr Russell has a number of strengths. It would meet headlong the problem of immigration by recognising that there needs to be immigration controls that reduce residential and employment immigration in the south. It proposes that EU citizens to Scotland and Northern Ireland would have passports stamped with visas that would not apply to England and Wales. Regulation by Border Force and UK Government agencies would remove any prospect of abuse. Likewise, the bogeyman of the customs union does not apply to English and Scottish borders as both would not be in the EU system.

The same applies to Northern Ireland, the one drawback being that its borders interface those of the Republic, which would be in the EU. Here, again, both the UK and Irish governments favour a “soft” co-operative border.

The EU is full of flexible arrangements. For example, Sweden (in the EU and customs union) has a 1,630 kilometre border with Norway (in Schengen but outside the EU and its customs union). Joint paper work, shared customs intelligence, video surveillance and automatic number plate recognition make the system cost efficient.

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If they can do it, Ireland and the UK can too. It all depends whether the British Isles countries want a practical, co-operative settlement or continued political grievances. Scotland needs the jobs access to the single market would bring. Is there any other feasible alternative?

Gordon Wilson was leader of the SNP between 1979 and 1990.

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