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Viewpoint / MEP in isles putting forward EU Remain case

SNP MEP Alyn Smith, who has been representing Scotland in Brussels since 2004. Photo: Shetnews/Neil Riddell
SNP MEP Alyn Smith.

VOTING to leave the EU would jeopardise human rights, employee protections and freedom of movement – leaving huge areas of public policy at the mercy of a right-wing Conservative government at Westminster.

That is the argument of SNP MEP Alyn Smith, who was speaking on a visit to the islands a little over three weeks ahead of the UK’s in/out referendum on EU membership on Thursday 23 June. Smith is staging a meeting at Islesburgh from 7.30pm on Monday.

He said the Remain campaign was contending with Vote Leave opponents who are “propagating fairy stories” such as the widely-dismissed claim that Britain hands £350 million a week in public money to Brussels.

The UK’s statistics authority rebuked Vote Leave for continuing to use the misleading figure. Once the UK’s rebate and sums returned from Brussels via various funding streams are accounted for, the net figure is less than 50 per cent of the amount emblazoned on the side of Vote Leave battlebuses.

“The £350 million figure has been debunked by everybody and yet they’re still using it,” Smith said. “It clearly is a lie, and it’s the old adage that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has laced its boots.

“They’re also raising the spectre that the entire population of Turkey is going to want to kip on your sofa. These are absurd exaggerations that wilfully misrepresent and wilfully misinform an awful lot of people.”

Smith, who has been an MEP in Brussels since 2004, also warned fishermen in the isles that their industry is “just not going to be a priority for the UK government in the way that it would be for the Scottish government”.

He accepted there were legitimate frustrations with how the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has operated – but argued the Scottish fleet might get a better deal within the EU framework if UK ministers placed more emphasis on the industry.

“The fishing industry has had to deal with quotas, has had to deal with poor representation, I have to say, from the UK government within Brussels,” he said.

“The SNP don’t have the capacity to speak on behalf of the industry in Brussels, that’s done by UK ministers – and I’m doing my best not to sound like a hack – who have not prioritised fisheries in the way that Scotland would have done.

“I’ve seen fisheries deals where our guys have had a poor outcome but the Irish have walked away with a better outcome, the Danes have walked away with a better outcome.”

Smith pointed out that the overall seafood industry was “more nuanced” than just its catching sector – with seven jobs on land for every one at sea and areas include processing and aquaculture very much part of the equation.

“There’s a lot of people who I understand are unhappy with the EU, but it’s often down to how we’ve been represented within it and the challenges that the sector as a whole has faced,” he said.

Asked whether the prospect of having control over industries such as fishing and agriculture would appeal to a party seeking more power for the Scottish Parliament, Smith said there was no certainty if the UK does vote to leave.

“The only certainty we’re dealing with is that we’ll have an arithmetic majority for the Conservatives in the House of Commons until 2020,” he said.

“We’ve just completed the Smith Commission process, such as it was. At the independence referendum campaign we were promised as close to federalism as we could get – what’s been delivered is way short of that.

“The idea that the arithmetic majority for the Conservatives will suddenly grant Scotland more powers is simply flat delusion.  If anything, I think we’d lose powers the other way.”

He said one in three Scottish farms would go bankrupt without EU single farm payments and any replacement scheme would be “entirely at the behest of the DEFRA minister, and we’ve seen what DEFRA ministers do with agricultural spending”.

Smith said that, unlike the white paper put forward for people to judge during the Scottish independence referendum, the leave campaign has not articulated what the UK being outside of the EU would actually mean.

“Shetlanders, Scots can go to the entire EU without visas, without paperwork, to the extent that we’ve forgotten it used to be necessary,” he told Shetland News.

“Roundabout £1,000 per head of economic benefits are underpinned by the European framework, human rights, rights at work, health and safety, protection from discrimination – all of these are legal rights that are ultimately guaranteed by the European court.

“All of that would be handed to Westminster. I think we’ll get better outcomes by remaining within that framework. There’s been zero detail about what they’d replace that with, but I don’t think it’s a reasonable proposition that Nigel Farage is interested in making the rights of workers better.”

Smith acknowledged that the “worst excesses” of the Remain campaign, fronted by David Cameron, included its own share of scaremongering.

He said elements were reminiscent of the “project fear” that nearly lost the No campaign the Scottish independence referendum, and SNP campaigners were determinedly “basing it on facts” when it comes to staying in the EU.

“That’s uncomfortable for us because we were on the receiving end and don’t want to be part of those tactics,” he said.

“The way the campaign is being run down south especially, not in Scotland where the Remain campaign is doing pretty good work, I fear might win the vote but it won’t win the argument.

“The question particularly about immigration will bedevil UK politics for the foreseeable future, and that takes us to a dangerous place.”

SNP veteran Jim Sillars was in the isles for a sparsely-attended event outlining the left-wing case for an EU exit at the star of May.

Smith says he “parted company with Jim some time ago on this” because there are “a number of points he’s been labouring on that are flatly wrong”.

Misgivings about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States would not be alleviated by leaving the EU because the UK government has been “the biggest cheerleader for TTIP” and would “sign us up to TTIP on steroids in short order”.

He also pointed out that, despite its unfortunate predicament, Greek public opinion remains resolutely behind the EU.