Former education minister Michael Russell was all smiles when he took the photo call with the First Minister last month on his appointment as the Scottish Government’s new Brexit minister.
I fear those smiles have quickly faded. He has been handed the most unenviable job in Holyrood. He has to master the fine detail of negotiations on which the livelihoods of thousands of Scottish businesses now depend.
A simple choice, we may think, between “Hard” and “Soft” Brexit.
But it is not as simple or as binary as popular narrative suggests. And little wonder Prime Minister Theresa May appears to be swithering and unable to pronounce on this apparently straightforward question.
Either we stay inside the EU and accept the best our negotiators could achieve, or we walk into Liam Fox’s global free trade landscape whose complexity is likened by some to a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
That certainly seems to be Mr Russell’s initial view. He told Holyrood’s European and external relations committee that such a move would be “immensely problematic”, as he reiterated the Scottish Government’s desire to stay in both the European single market and the customs union.
A so-called “Hard Brexit” deal, he added, in which the UK opts to forge its own international trade agreements, could be “a nightmare of negotiation”.
I have bad news – but also good news – for Mr Russell. The bad news is that in striving for a Soft Brexit option he may still have to wade through no fewer than 42 different types of trade agreements the EU has agreed with other states and regions.
The tally has been compiled by Dr Lee Rotherham, an adviser to three shadow foreign secretaries and a delegate to the Council of Europe. His count is based on the commission’s own definitions and terminology. So much for the either-or narrative and picking the lesser of two evils.
The good news is that while not all of these options are applicable to UK conditions, the very fact of the wide and complex variety of trade agreements, pacts and accommodations the EU has reached with external trading partners and their transition over time suggests that the commission will find it difficult to impose an ‘either-or’ straitjacket on UK negotiators.
Dr Rotherham’s list ranges across Cooperation and Customs Union (CCU) arrangements through Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements, Free Trade Agreements plus bilaterals (Switzerland), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (pending) with the US, Comprehensive Trade and Economic Agreements, as with Canada, and all manner of trade settlements reached with countries ranging from Macedonia, through Ukraine and Malaysia, to South Korea.
There are many examples of such bespoke relationships – but perhaps the most pertinent to Brexit is the example of Switzerland. It can sign its own Free Trade Agreements, and has retained much of its national sovereignty, while still enjoying privileged access to the EU market.
Barely a day goes by without some chilly warning from Brussels that there will be no special concessions for the UK or that the commission is set to play hardball with the UK’s Leave negotiators.
For myself, I fear as much, if not more, the seductive charm that the commission can turn on when it suits. There is barely an “EU crisis summit” where successive UK prime ministers not have struggled to maintain their “red line” positions in the face of informal tête-à-têtes and side deals with oleaginous officials and the seeming harmony reached over those sumptuous crisis dinners with EU leaders. The news cameras pan over candlelit tables, the glittering silverware, the exquisite French cuisine and the hovering wine waiters – “Ah, this is a fine Chateau La Garde, Mr Russell. Some earlier vintages may have been corked, but this is an excellent year”.
In that sort of environment it’s easy to succumb to Stockholm Syndrome – the psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors.
The website Brexit Central provides a simplified guide to the complex terrain we are entering. There is Very Hard Brexit – falling back immediately on WTO rules. The UK would trigger Article 50 immediately, would not seek to negotiate any new agreement with the EU and would begin imposing WTO rules straight away.
Then there is Hard Brexit – a swift but minimal free trade agreement. Middling Brexit, which could be early next year or after the French and German elections, would seek to reach a comprehensive and broad free trade agreement with broad and wide cooperation on a number of other issues from foreign policy to justice and home affairs. This may require some form of transitional period.
Then comes Soft Brexit – the UK joining the European Economic Area similar to Norway and therefore largely staying in the single market but giving up a say on the rules of the market.
Finally there is Very Soft Brexit – not only does the UK join the EEA but it also seeks to stay inside the Customs Union.
Complex? As Mr Russell enters this labyrinth, Nicola Sturgeon may wish to supply her new minister with a whistle, a ball of wool and a long-life battery torch.
Contrary to his warnings to Holyrood’s European committee, Mr Russell may find that Soft Brexit has no fewer permutations than the Liam Fox route. And even as a tactical negotiating ploy, there may be advantages in playing hardball. UK negotiators should take a firm stand at the outset and lay down clear terms for the withdrawal agreement, making clear that they could walk away without any deal at all.
This could be accompanied by an offer of tariff-free access for all EU goods, and our open market for services.
Taking a firm line? Looking at the concessions the SNP has secured from Westminster over the past eight years, would he not agree?