'McSmörgåsbord' by Lesley Riddoch and Eberhard Bort (Luath Press)
I begin with a quibble over the way in which this information-packed little book is presented. At a glance, its title in bold is, ironically, an uninformative mouthful. At the same glance, Lesley Riddoch and Eberhard Bort seem to be the book's authors. In reality they are editors and contributors. Admittedly a closer look provides a more accurate picture. Beneath 'McSmörgåsbord' in tiny print we learn: 'What post-Brexit Scotland can learn from the Nordics', and beneath Lesley Riddoch and Eberhard Bort in tiny print we read 'with a little help from their Nordic friends'. In truth these friends provide rather more than a little help: of the book's nine chapters they provide six, while the other three are the work of Riddoch and Bort.
The book emerged from a Scottish government-funded event held in Edinburgh in October 2016 by a group called Nordic Horizons in association with Edinburgh University's Academy of Government. Lesley Riddoch, the well-known writer, journalist and broadcaster, in 2009 was a founder of Nordic Horizons, an informal group of Scottish professionals who aim to 'raise the standard of knowledge and debate about life and policy in the Nordic nations.' Eberhard or 'Paddy' Bort, who died just before the book was published, was a lecturer in the Academy of Government. Dedicating it to him, Lesley Riddoch tells us that German-born Paddy was 'a born-again European' who had come to have a special interest in, and admiration for, the Nordic nations.
The Nordic nations comprise Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland alongside Greenland and the Faroe Islands. All of these belong to the Nordic Council and all have extraordinarily varied relationships with Europe. It is on this range of relationships with Europe that the book focuses, while its underlying theme is the possible relevance of some of these Nordic-European Union links to the future position of a post-Brexit Scotland.
However, to facilitate our understanding of the complex relationships that will be described, the book begins with a series of definitions, a glossary and an historical timeline. The editors concede that 'definitions are a dull way to begin a book' but they are right to do so. To have any hope at all of making sense of what is to follow, the reader has to be familiar with at least the differences between the EU (European Union), EFTA (European Free Trade Association) and EEA (European Economic Area).
According to the editors, the Nordic nations have 'thrashed out every conceivable variation of relationship with the EU'. Finland, Sweden and Denmark are in. Iceland and Norway are out. Greenland and the Faroes are also out, despite remaining linked to Denmark through a 'home rule' relationship. Norway and Iceland join Switzerland and Liechtenstein in EFTA. Finland is the only one of the Nordic nations to have adopted the euro as its currency. Just how each of these countries arrived at its current position is largely explained in the six chapters written by their representatives who attended and spoke at the 2016 Edinburgh event.
Thus the stories of Iceland, Greenland, the Faroes, Norway, Sweden and Finland, in relation to Europe and the EU, are set out in considerable detail. I learned a lot from these chapters, but how exactly this information bears upon Scotland's current situation is rarely obvious. For example, it emerges that the decisions made by Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes were absolutely determined at all times by their need to protect their fishing industries. Fish was their livelihood and fish they were determined to keep.
Now the fishing industry's lobby in Scotland is powerful and effective. Over and over again we hear that EU fishing regulations are unnecessary and damaging. Scottish fishermen should take back control of Scottish waters. The rules of Brussels should be abandoned. However, in the context of Scotland's economy as a whole, it is hard to believe that the demands of this relatively small industry could ever determine our relationship with Europe. So the message from Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes is not particularly relevant or helpful.
Clearly the representatives from the Nordic nations were invited to link their stories to a post-Brexit Scottish situation. Could Scotland learn from their experience? The answers that come across are pretty brief and tentative at best. That no country's situation is the same as another's becomes a repeated message. And as I shall note in a moment, Scotland's position suffers from an, as it were, self-created problem.
On the other hand, what I suspect is not in doubt is what Lesley Riddoch and Paddy Bort see as the best bet for post-Brexit Scotland. (Lesley Riddoch is a supporter of Scottish independence and Eberhard Bort no doubt agreed.) Membership of EFTA and EEA would allow Scotland to remain within Europe's single market while opting out of the common fisheries and agriculture policies, Maastricht, the customs union, and the euro. It could also opt into areas such as justice, security, free movement in Europe, and in exchange for a financial contribution, educational and research funds.
Joining a club 'dominated by small Nordic players (instead of one dominated by large players like Germany and France)', they suggest, 'could help Scotland shift from a market-dominated, top-down social and economic model towards a more co-operative and de-centralised one.' 'Perhaps, too,' they continue, 'a viable half-way option would boost support for Scottish independence?' The way to go seems reasonably clear.
Let me end by making an observation with which Lesley Riddoch will surely disagree. To my mind, from the moment that the leadership of the SNP saw the outcome of the Brexit vote in Scotland as a green light for demanding a second independence referendum, any chance that serious consideration would be given to any kind of special deal for post-Brexit Scotland and Northern Ireland disappeared. This book makes it clear that the EU has been flexible enough to agree to special deals of some kind for some Nordic countries. Obviously a special arrangement for different parts of the UK would be an even bigger challenge.
However, the EU's obvious commitment to finding a solution to the problem of the Northern Ireland border is a positive sign. But as long as Scotland's position inside or outside the UK is uncertain, why should Europe even begin to give the Scottish issue serious thought?
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