Sturgeon urged to separate indyref2 from EU membership

Alex Neil Credit: Press Association

A former SNP cabinet minister has called on Nicola Sturgeon to separate the issue of EU membership from independence.

Alex Neil, was served as cabinet secretary for social justice, said the two issues must be kept apart to help the SNP win a second independence referendum.

Mr Neil, who Nicola Sturgeon did not reappoint to be cabinet after the last Scottish election, even suggested an independent Scotland would not need to join the EU.

His remarks come after the First Minister and other senior SNP politicians left their options open on the issue of the EU in the context of the Scottish government's proposed second referendum.

At her press conference announcing her plans for indyref2, Ms Sturgeon was asked about membership of the EU and would only say that remained the SNP's objective.

On Good Morning Britain yesterday Alex Salmond spoke of "the negotiations for Scotland to be part of the European context". The former SNP leader is a man who chooses his words carefully.

The context is the fact that more than a third of 'Yes' voters also voted for the UK to leave the EU, and the SNP know they have to take that into account.

Which makes Mr Neil's intervention all the more intriguing.In an interview with me for Representing Border, the former cabinet secretary cited Ms Sturgeon's and Mr Salmond's stance to support his case.

He told me: "I think when it comes to the independence referendum we have to separate out the issue of whether people want Scotland to be an independent country and whether we want it to be a member of the European Union.

"Because if we'd already coming out of the European Union it will be a case of re-applying as an independent country at some point in the future. Now that will have to be subject to some kind of democratic endorsement by the Scottish people."

He added: "I also think that's the best way to maximise the vote because of the million people in Scotland who voted for Brexit about 400,000 of those people are also Yes supporters.

"Now a proportion of those people may not vote for independence if they think that Yes to Independence is also a mandate to go back into the European Union.

"So my view all along has been we decouple those issues of independence and EU membership."

So if Scotland voted to become independent what would its status be if it is not in the EU on independence?

Mr Neil said: I think, if you listen to what both Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have said, their priority is the single market and I think therefore it is much more likely, rather than trying to treat the EU as the priority I think the priority would be to maintain membership of the single market.

"And the way to do that would be for an independent Scotland to apply to the European Free Trade Association for membership and then for membership of the single market as a member of EFTA."

And might there then be a referendum in an independent Scotland on EU membership?

Mr Neil told me: "It may be a decision is taken at that point whether it's worth the candle because if you're an independent country and you are in EFTA and if you also have single market status it may well be that by then we won't even know what the shape of the European Union, because you are taking three, four five six years down the road.

"So I think the priority as outlined by the First Minister will be single market membership and that's obtainable through EFTA. I suspect is a much easier and quicker process than re-applying for membership of the European Union.

"But it's also about maximising the independence vote, because if we don't take those people who are the so-called 'yes leavers', people who vote Yes to independence but also voted for Brexit if we don't take them with us then our chances of winning the Independence referendum are subdued."

Does this signal a big change in SNP policy? Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond are certainly aware of the problem (for them) of Euroscepticism about Yes supporters - revealed in an academic study today.

Have they given up on EU membership? No, not at all. But they are, they are proceeding cautiously as canny politicians with an eye on winning what for them is the most important vote of all - the independence referendum - would.

You can see my interview with Alex Neil here