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Brexit could cost Highlands and Islands millions

Councillor Maxine Smith, chairwoman of Highland Council's tourism committee.
Councillor Maxine Smith, chairwoman of Highland Council's tourism committee.

An emergency council debate today will attempt to dispel panic over the possible cost to the Highlands and Islands of quitting the European Union.

Highland Council SNP opposition leader Maxine Smith fears Brexit means the north will lose a distinct financial advantage it has had over the UK as a whole.

While some senior colleagues are adamant the benefits can be maintained outwith the union, a leading economist warned last night that, at least in the short term, things appear bleak.

Highlands and Islands residents have enjoyed a £15million return in regional development grants and agriculture payments on the £10.4million paid in each year over the past five years.

UK-wide, however, taxpayers annually have paid in £18billion (CORRECT) for a yearly return of £10billion, according to Inverness-bases Tony Mackay.

Doubting a Westminster government would maintain the north’s advantage, councillor Smith is adamant Scotland remains an EU member.

She said: “We have no remit over Westminster to make them give us the proportion of money that should come our way.”

She is confident that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon can negotiate a continuation of Scotland’s membership of the union irrespective of Britain’s phased withdrawal over the next two years.

“If she finds she can’t negotiate that deal we’ll proably have an ‘Indy Ref 2’ or we might have that anyway regardless,” Ms Smith said.

“Obviously, if the vote is yes for independence, then we can negotiate a new deal with Europe. I think Europe would be keen for us to stay in. But those negotiations can take years, so there’s going to be a period of time where we’re in a void in which things will fall by the wayside.”

Mr Mackay doubts that either the UK or Scottish Government will be able to maintain the recent level of European funding.

“I believe that after the two-year period there will be a reduction in the assistance and, therefore, we must make the best of the money that’s available for the next two or three years,” he said.

The council’s budget leader Bill Fernie is more optimistic.

He said: “In recent years the Highland economy has strengthened considerably. We’ve certainly had the advantage of a lot of European funding. Whether we would have got all that money from the UK Government had we not been a member of the EU is another question.

“But people have panicked unnecessarily about the amount we may or may not lose as a result of leaving the union.”

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