At 11pm on January 31 the UK, including Scotland, will exit the European Union. The Remain/Leave debate will be history. 

Even the most ardent Remainers Sir Keir Starmer and Lord Michael Heseltine have admitted there is no prospect of the UK ever re-joining the EU.

The SNP’s policy of “Independence in Europe”, adopted in 1989, now needs to be re-visited to adjust to this new situation. 

If an independent Scotland joins the EU, that could lead to a hard border between Scotland and England, a proposition that would scupper any realistic chance of winning a second independence referendum. Until the UK-EU free trade agreement, or no agreement, is known it is not possible to finalise a policy. 

However, contingency planning is sensible, and one possibility stands out – Scotland joining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).

That guarantees access to the EU single market, but outwith its customs union and therefore able to exercise a great deal more sovereignty than is possible with EU membership.

There is a big difference between asking the Scots if they want the UK to remain within the EU, as in the 2016 EU referendum, to asking them to vote for independence on the premise that an independent Scotland would re-join the EU whilst the rest of the UK remains out.

The EU is a customs union. 

If Scotland joins that customs union whilst the rest of the UK remains out that would inevitably create a trade border at Gretna. 

At the very least, there would no longer be “frictionless” trade between Scotland and England.  As with Northern Ireland, where a new border has been created between Ulster and mainland Britain on the Irish Sea, a parallel border arrangement would inevitably be required between Scotland and England in the event of an independent Scotland re-joining the EU.

Depending on the outcome of the negotiations about to begin between the UK and EU on their future trading relationship, tariffs and quotas on trade may also be required between an independent Scotland and England to maintain the integrity of the EU customs union. By promising to re-join the EU after independence, the SNP would therefore be handing a gift to our Unionist opponents. 

They would weaponise the border issue in exactly the same way they did with the currency issue in the 2014 Independence Referendum. 

The chances of winning the referendum would be unnecessarily and substantially weakened.

These issues do not arise if an independent Scotland is part of a free trade agreement but not in a customs union. It is time to consider our non-EU options.

Alex Neil MSP is a former cabinet secretary for health, social justice and communities