FORMER Labour trade minister Nigel Griffiths and one time SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars were greeted with a sparse turnout to deliver the Grassroots Out (GO) case for Britain to leave the European Union.
There were just 11 punters at Islesburgh, which a week earlier had served as the bustling bar for this year’s Shetland Folk Festival, for a meeting scheduled less than 24 hours after the Scottish Parliament election count – which may explain the lack of numbers.
GO had chosen a pair of the more left-leaning politicians among their number for this event – the cross-party group is also supported by right wing Tories such as Peter Bone and UKIP’s Nigel Farage.
As a result, their case for exiting the EU focused more on trade, industry and workers’ rights than the anti-immigration message of some in their camp.
Griffiths kicked things off by urging the few present to “leave the EU and join the world”, and end a situation where the UK gives £19 billion a year to the EU and only gets a fraction of that back from “a regime in Brussels that is mired in cronyism”.
Referring to “multiple criticisms” of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), he wants to see that money used instead to encourage farmers to grow and produce things that are needed.
Turning the clock back to 1972, he said just before it joined the EEC Britain was estimated to have access to over 75 per cent of the viable and productive fish stocks in Europe.
The result of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – which has left many Shetland fishermen keen on an EU exit – “couldn’t have been a bigger disaster”. Griffiths said it had cost 100,000 fishing jobs and cod stocks had declined, whereas Norway had enjoyed a 42 per cent rise in productivity and Iceland was outperforming the British fleet.
“We need to take back control of that, and decide how we conserve our stocks,” he argued.
He said the campaign to remain part of the EU had spread “scare stories about exports”, but the balance of trade was in Europe’s favour with Britain importing more than it exports from the EU.
It would not be in German car manufacturers’ interest to erect trade barriers in the event of the UK leaving, Griffiths said, while Brussels had been “weak and spineless on imports from countries paying slave wages with no health and safety”.
The US had levied 240 per cent tariffs on Chinese steel, but the EU refused to follow suit “to the cost and detriment of our steel industry”.
Griffiths also railed against multinationals like Starbucks, Amazon and McDonalds. The UK is Europe’s biggest customer for all three, consuming much more than Germany or France.
“But do they pay any corporation tax here? No. Where do they pay it? Luxembourg.”
He said it was the European Commission, under president Jean-Claude Juncker, which prevented the UK government taxing those multinationals.
Griffiths finished his short talk by speaking about the dangers of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is being negotiated behind closed doors and could allow big American companies to dictate terms to the UK government on the tendering of public service contracts.
“TTIP or not, by 2019 Brussels has ruled that all rail services in Europe have to be put to competitive compulsory tendering,” he added, “at a time when I know Tory MPs who would welcome bringing back our rail services into state ownership because of the shambles they see for their commuting constituents.”
Sillars, now 78, is at odds with the SNP leadership and much of the party over the EU.
He highlighted concerns about the EU’s democratic deficit, where the Brussels parliament can never be the body from which a European government is drawn because the 28 member states “are not homogeneous”.
“What do we, up here in Shetland, know about the towns surrounding Naples?” he asked. “We’re always going to have 28 unelected commissioners.”
Sillars said the commission was a “self-selecting, self-serving elite” containing five former Prime Ministers, many other ex ministers and MEPs and Lord John Hill from the UK.
“I bet naebody here has ever heard of them or know who they are,” he said. “They’re the executive government of the EU, so it is fundamentally undemocratic.”
Sillars, too, was concerned about the secrecy surrounding the TTIP. He was also furious with how the so-called “troika” (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) had treated Greece and Portugal so shoddily.
The Eurozone bailout lent those countries money “not to make life easier for the Greek and Portuguese, but to save the French and German banks who lent money”.
It left Greece an economic basket case with people’s standard of living falling, and the Eurozone will not be workable unless the same tax and spending policies are pursued across its 17 member states.
He said the SNP had been arguing against the CFP for many years, and power over fisheries and agriculture would go to Holyrood, not Westminster, in the event of an EU exit.
Sillars said the SNP had never critically examined how the EU has developed over the decades, and that bland statements about how Scotland has “gained enormously” were contradicted by the impact on industries such as fishing and steel.
One audience member pointed out that little detail has been heard about what kind of subsidy schemes would replace the CAP and CFP if Britain does leave.
Sillars said he was generally pro-immigration, and said the leave side was hampered by having folk like UKIP’s David Coburn banging on about “Johnny Foreigner”.
But having an “open door” policy posed the problem of how to plan for housing (with 175,000 central belt families on the waiting list), health and education, and it was important to have a “sensible discussion” about immigration.