It’s now 44 years since Shetland was dragged into the European Common Market against our will. In the 1975 referendum, unlike most of the UK, Shetlanders voted against the Tories’ 1973 deal to join Europe and Harold Wilson’s sham renegotiation of the terms of entry.
The reason was concern about the future of fishing. That’s still a contentious issue but we hear rather less about the benefits that membership of the European Union has brought to Shetland.
Of course, local taxpayers and shoppers have contributed our share of the cost of EU membership but even the most cursory glance shows that the islands have got much more out of Brussels than we’ve paid in.
The plaques and notices recording EU assistance for Shetland projects are everywhere: for example, European funds helped build the first roll-on/roll-of ferry terminals at Holmsgarth and Aberdeen in 1977; fishing piers, inter-island ferries and ferry terminals, airport improvements, industrial estates, factories, fish markets – you name it, almost every significant economic development project in the islands has received grants and/or loans from Europe.
It’s not just because of the council’s oil reserve fund that Shetland’s had the lowest unemployment rate in the country for decades past; most of the council’s own projects could not have gone ahead without cash from the EU. Other beneficiaries include community projects such as country halls and facilities for leisure centres, the arts and environmental improvement.
Oddly enough, no-one seems to have kept an exact tally of Europe’s aid to Shetland but a reasonable estimate, including agricultural subsidies (running at about £9m a year until recently) is that European funds of at least £500 million have come to the isles since 1973.
To put that half-billion in context, it’s about four times the council’s current annual budget. None of this happened because Shetland received special treatment. The cumbersome language of the Eurocrats is often confusing but the principle behind such assistance is that remoter parts of the European Union are entitled to compensate for the difficulties that geography imposes on us, whether it’s the Greek Islands, the Azores or Shetland.
In other words, “from each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs”. This seems to me rather a good principle.
So, would the same sort of help be available from the British Government for the UK’s “peripheral maritime regions” if and when we leave the EU? It’s a very good question.
So far we do not have an answer. The silence of the collapsing Tory government on this vital issue is a reason to be afraid, very afraid.
That is why I will vote in the European Parliamentary election on 23 May. It’s also why I will support the SNP, the only pro-European social democratic party with any chance of taking three or more of the six Scottish seats in Strasbourg.