The First Minister’s main agenda will clash with the realpolitick needed during Brexit talks writes Scott Macnab
When Nicola Sturgeon proclaimed an SNP election victory would entitle the Scottish Government to a presence at the Brexit negotiations, it prompted opponents to quip: “On which side?” This is, after all, a First Minister who is now committed to holding a second referendum with the purpose of taking Scotland out of the UK - and back into the European Union. The potential for a conflict of interest is almost more than just political mischief making.
As electioneering hits fever pitch in the UK, it’s easy to overlook how the EU has turned up the heat over the Brexit process in recent months, cranking up the “divorce” bill demands to £100 billion and ridiculing the UK Government’s position in a series of increasingly acerbic briefings. This prompted a furious response from Theresa May who accused Brussels of interference in the UK general election - called to strengthen her own Brexit hand - and provided the most stark picture yet of the simmering acrimony which now exists between EU leaders and Brexit Britain.
Whatever way one voted in last year’s referendum, Brexit is now a reality. And while Ms Sturgeon might want to keep the Tories in check, perhaps realpolitick demands a bit more solidarity around an approach which secures the best deal for the UK in the broader national interest. Ms Sturgeon’s concern about the potential impact on Scotland is entirely legitimate. And in the era of a devolved UK, Westminster has to deal with the fact that the democratically elected leader of the Scottish Government will have something to say about fundamental constitutional change which will have such an impact on citizens north of the border. Especially when a majority of Scots, unlike the rest of the UK, voted to Remain.
How much of this is political posturing? The main thrust of the First Minister’s concerns stem from a Fraser of Allander report commissioned by Holyrood’s Europe committee last year which warned up to 80,000 jobs could be lost along with £8 billion from the Scottish economy. But this was under the scenario of no free trade deal being reached between the EU bloc and the UK which would mean reverting back to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules and costly tariffs on exports to the continent. However the bloc’s new Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said just a couple of weeks ago that a free trade deal would be reached with the UK. “We will have a free trade agreement, that is for sure,” the Swede told a conference in Copenhagen. It’s not all good news, as the Fraser of Allander report suggested this could still mean the loss of 30,000 jobs for Scotland, but the nightmare scenario is fast diminishing.
At the heart of the issue is the largely meaningless language of “hard” and “soft” Brexit, stemming from the claim that when UK citizens voted to leave the EU they weren’t actually choosing to quit things like the single market, the customs union, the European Court of Justice. We wanted to keep them all. Really? This doesn’t stack up and Mrs May’s oft-maligned “Brexit means Brexit” mantra is simply about making it clear that leaving the Brussels bloc includes its key institutions.
The Scottish Government had proposed wildly optimistic plans for Scotland to remain in the EU single market, while the rest of the UK leaves. Ms Sturgeon did acknowledge that in practice this would be “challenging” to implement. Its hard to see how the “open borders” migration arrangement which comes with EU membership could work in one part of the UK but not the rest- not without the creation of a “hard border” with England which nobody wants. Even the most ardent pro-Remainers like David Cameron, George Osborne and ex-Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg admitted that a Leave vote would mean quitting the single market. The SNP leader has also warned that the Tories are ready to sacrifice the right of EU nationals who have made their home in the UK to stay. Again, this seems at odds with the reality of the situation after Brexit Secretary David Davis made it clear that this would be his key priority when talks get underway with his opposite number Michel Barnier at the end of the next month. The UK minister is adamant that a deal can be reached on this by Autumn. Both sides are apparently agreed that EU citizens in the UK, and vice-versa, should enjoy the same rights over pensions and welfare they currently have across Europe. It’s only the “fine detail” which must be worked out, like which court takes legal jurisdiction over the issue.
When it comes to any kind of global negotiations, the real motivating factor is always national interests. It’s hard to reasonably see why the UK Government would seek anything other than this from the current Brexit talks. But negotiation involves tough talking, often taking hardline stances - threatening to walk away if need be - to let the other side know you mean business. Hence the warning from Theresa May that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Mr Davis went further at the weekend, stating that the UK needs “to have the option to walk away or else we will be blackmailed”. This lies at the heart of the Prime Minister’s decision to call the general election. UK ministers fear that opponents are determined to exploit each and every negotiating stance for political advantage and as a result potentially disrupt the UK team’s efforts to get the best deal possible agreement. A decisive victory will give Mrs May the strong hand she feels is needed to foster a united ‘Team Britain’ approach which will secure the best deal for the whole country.
Ms Sturgeon is entitled to feel the same principle should apply north of the border - that an SNP election victory in Scotland should similarly give her a seat round the table. But as Ms Sturgeon prepares to outline her next moves to secure a second referendum - which had been promised “after Easter” - SNP representation on the UK’s negotiating team seems a pipe dream. In this respect, it seems Ms Sturgeon fired the starting gun too soon on indyref2, before she had any inkling what the final terms of Brexit will be.