THIS week the phoney war between the UK Government and the European Commission finally ends and Brexit negotiations begin in earnest. In the past few days, a string of senior European politicians have hinted they would happily see the Brits stay in the EU after all — meaning the door is open to a mutually beneficial solution. Equally, on this side of the Channel, the patent vacuum of leadership in Number 10 suggests we have a better chance of influencing the outcome to suit Scotland.

Given this political window, it is imperative Scotland has a clear vision of what it wants to achieve from the negotiations. Answer: we want a “soft” Brexit, not a “hard” one. In this, Scottish interests seem to be aligning with the needs of the UK. But what does a “soft” Brexit mean in practice?

That’s easy: it means the UK negotiates continued de facto membership – perhaps dressed up as “associate” status — of the single market, which keeps open tariff-free trade with the rest of Europe. We could do this by joining the European Economic Area (EEA). The EEA is essentially a club of nations that access the single market without being formal members of the EU; eg. Norway. (NB. That leaves open the question of remaining inside the EU customs union, of which more anon.) What are the pitfalls to joining the EEA? International trade agreements — such as remaining in the single market — require an impartial referee if there are disputes. But extreme Brexiteers demand the UK is free to make its own laws. Which is why they want to be shot of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, the main EU trade referee. However, EEA countries like Norway get around being under the formal jurisdiction of the Court of Justice by referring disputes to a special independent court. Mind you, this court usually follows Court of Justice rulings, but honour is satisfied.

That leaves the vexed question of free movement of labour. The extreme Brexiteers want UK control over population movements which — in theory — nixes continued membership of the single market. But this is easily got around. The Swiss remain in the single market but keep de facto control over immigration. They do this using a simple “fix”: any European citizen is free to move to Switzerland, thus formally meeting single market rules. But these immigrants must get a job within a set time period, otherwise they have to leave.

Now what about membership of the EU customs union? This sets a common external tariff wall between EU members and the rest of the world, the better to protect internal European suppliers. The extreme UK Brexiteers want the freedom to negotiate global free trade deals independent of the EU. That automatically implies quitting a common customs link with the EU so Britain can do its own thing — easier said than done, though.

Here’s the problem: it would be next to impossible for Scotland to remain inside the EU customs union if England is outside. England is still Scotland’s biggest trading partner so it would be folly to impose new tariff barriers between us, raising costs unnecessarily. (Incidentally, it beats me why a “free trade” England would contemplate putting up such tariff barriers to an indy Scotland, as it would hurt them as much as us.) Conclusion: an England outside the EU customs union would make it very difficult for an independent Scotland to contemplate being a full member of the EU. Which points indy Scotland in the direction of a Norway-style link with the European Union. The latter is not a bad idea as it would allow us to operate a local farming and fishing regime, and satisfy those Yes supporters who are wary of giving up control by London for control from Brussels.

The worst possible outcome from Brexit negotiations would be for the UK to quit the EU altogether and revert to WTO rules for its international trade — a “hard” Brexit. Why? The trouble is that WTO rules are hardly rules at all.

Within the single market, border checks have been eliminated across Europe and there is mutual recognition of product and safety standards. You can load a truck with widgets in Glasgow and drive them to the Turkish border, with minimum fuss. But leave the EU for WTO rules and bureaucratic chaos descends. Goods are subject to border checks, visual inspection and physical testing. A typical container inspection costs £700 and detention could cost you £80 a day for the ten days it will take to get your product tested. Add the testing fee and your firm is now out an extra £2000 to deliver each container to the EU. And God forbid if you are a Scottish company exporting animal products to the EU.

As a result, most big countries (eg. China and the US) have negotiated so-called Mutual Recognition Agreements with the EU to get round the problem of such border checks. So in fact, no nation that is serious about trade uses WTO rules if they want to ensure trouble-free border crossings for their goods. Which brings us back to the reality for getting a good deal out of the Brexit negotiations.

The SNP government argues that, in the event Westminster heads for a “hard” Brexit, Scotland should seek a special status (inside the UK) allowing it to remain within the single market even if England is out. In theory such a bespoke deal is perfectly possible. After all, the DUP tail now wagging the Conservative dog is also intent on winning special status with the EU for Northern Ireland, post Brexit.

Indeed, this is the position the SNP put forward in its Brexit White Paper last December. The trouble is that by this March the SNP leadership had — for all intents and purposes –— moved on from the White Paper to advocating a fresh independence referendum. Those of us at Westminster arguing for a bespoke Scottish trade deal were left politically marooned. Under Ian Blackford as Westminster leader, we are now back to Plan A: demanding all the UK nations are represented on a Brexit negotiating commission, with a special trade deal for Scotland. We have to take seriously this (latest) position and stick to it. Getting a bespoke deal for Scotland to stay in the single market is not some political manoeuvre. It means life or death for the Scottish economy. But winning a seat for Scotland at the Brexit negotiating table requires forging an alliance across the whole Scottish Parliament and with all Scottish MPs at Westminster. We could begin by the Scottish Government appointing a cross-party group of negotiating “commissioners”, including representatives from business and the trades unions.

Ruth Davidson and Kezia Dugdale go on about the importance of the so-called day job. There is no more important day job in Scotland than negotiating successfully to retain membership of the single market. If Scotland can agree a united position for the Brexit talks, it stands the best chance of getting the debilitated May government to accede to it. Time then, for Ruth and Kezia to step up to the plate and fight for a “soft” Brexit deal for Scotland.