It went with more of a whimper than a bang. As I sat in the House of Commons on Thursday and listened to the Deputy Speaker read out that Royal Assent had been granted to the grubby Withdrawal Agreement Bill, now Act, I was strangely unemotional. The final domestic hurdle for our removal from the EU, after all the dramatic twists and turns of the last few years, has now been cleared. The Agreement will be debated and approved by the European Parliament in Brussels this coming Wednesday, and our EU status will end, I hope for the moment, at 2300 this coming Friday.
The fact that it takes effect at 2300 our time tells you all you need to know about Brexit and what comes next – the legally effective moment is midnight, Brussels time.
I’ll be in Stirling on Friday night, at a cross party vigil with Stirling for Europe, and am pleased to see numerous events across the country all picking up on my plea to the European Parliament last year that if we are removed from the EU they would “leave a light on” for us to find our way back.
But Friday will not be the end of the matter, make no mistake, the UK is in a serious constitutional crisis which no amount of bluster from the current resident of Downing Street can disguise. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland formally objected to the Act, the House of Lords tried, unsuccessfully, to amend it and even Gibraltar has grave doubts about the implications of it for them. All concerns have been ignored. If one asks for consent yet continues even when that consent is denied then there’s clearly something amiss in the relationship.
So what comes next? February marks a major pivot in policy both for the UK and for Scotland. For better or for worse, the existentialism is now over – we failed to stop Brexit, they “got it done” and I’m sorry about it. Scotland could not have done anything more. We voted 62 per cent Remain in the 2016 referendum, elected a majority of pro-EU MPs in the 2017 Westminster election, pro-EU MEPs in the 2019 election and indeed at the Westminster election just passed voted massively in favour of pro-EU parties with my party winning 80 per cent of the seats and the pro-EU LibDems winning four more. The Scottish Parliament formally refused consent to the EU Withdrawal but despite all this it is happening anyway. We played by the rules of the UK and we’ve been comprehensively disrespected at every turn. So much for leading not leaving and a partnership of equals.
So our only way back into the EU is independence, and that discussion will of course evolve as the reality of Brexit dawns on the UK. Only last week a Brexit Party MEP bemoaned the fact that during the 11-month transition period the UK will be subject to all the EU rules past and future, but have no say in influencing them. Wait till she sees what’s coming next. The Tories have been able to maintain a unity around vacuous phrases like “Brexit means Brexit” and “Let’s get Brexit sorted” but the reality is that all the Withdrawal Agreement covers is the exit, and we now have 11 months of a transition period to the end of the year to agree the future relationship. The cliff edge is a little further away, but higher and with jaggier rocks. Will Scots students still be able to go on Erasmus exchanges? Maybe, but it’ll cost us. Will your mobile phone go back to charging an eye watering amount if you’re in the EU? Probably. Will your European Health Insurance card work when you visit the Continent? Don’t bet on it. Will we need a visa to go to France? Maybe. Will Scots farmers be supported by domestic funding to the same extent as under the EU Common Agricultural Policy? I hae ma doots. Will food imports be more expensive? Perhaps. Or will we be flooded with poor quality but cheaper imports, putting our farmers out of business? Quite possibly.
All these questions, shamefully, are still unanswered. I’ve said long since that it is perfectly legitimate to want to leave the EU, but surely you have a duty to tell people what comes next and what the changes mean. Incredibly, the dysfunctional House of Commons I now somehow find myself in has agreed to exit with no clue of what is to come.
So our work continues. I will be building the case for independence at home and in the wider world as it prepares for our possible EU accession. I will also be holding the UK government to account as these real decisions with real consequences emerge from the fog. The Tories, united for now, will be fighting like ferrets in a sack once these choices need to be made and justified to people. I will push for the UK to remain as closely aligned to the EU standards as possible, but I fear there are many in the Tory Party who will be pushing in the opposite direction. There truly are some of the wilder eyed among them who want to slash and burn, to create a low-tax, low-spend mid-Atlantic economy with US levels of social protection, a privatised NHS and a London financial sector that will look more like Moscow than Frankfurt. It’s hardly what many folks who voted for Brexit actually wanted and assuredly not what we want in Scotland.
The people of Scotland have a choice to make, and I appreciate and respect that for many it is a painful and unwelcome one. We’ll need to choose which union works best for us. The European of 450 million people, which in Ireland has just proven what international solidarity looks like in practice, or the British. The people in charge of the UK have also just proven over the last few years that they don’t regard Scotland as a respected equal partner in a joint enterprise, rather an uppity region to be bossed about that should remember its place.
The debate will continue, and I know a lot of people are thinking hard about our best future. So are we in the SNP, and we have concluded that independence in Europe offers our best chance. Events in the year to come will make our case for us.
Alyn Smith is SNP MP for Stirling. He was an MEP from 2004 to 2019 and is SNP spokesperson for International Affairs and Europe