Lesley Riddoch: Why can't Scots get special EU deal?

Theresa May is meeting with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today. Picture: GettyTheresa May is meeting with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today. Picture: Getty
Theresa May is meeting with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today. Picture: Getty
It's safe to say today's Brexit meeting between Theresa May and leaders of the devolved nations will not be easy.

There’s already been a sharp exchange of insults. Theresa May said she hoped for “grown up” talks with Nicola Sturgeon -Alex Salmond responded by describing her cabinet as “planks of wood.”

Better Together boss Alistair Darling says the First Minister is bluffing with her threat of indyref2 - commentators on the BBC’s Sunday Politics Scotland agree the SNP leader is now “locked in” to a second independence referendum if she doesn’t get the package she has demanded– remaining in the single market, obtaining full protection for EU residents here and continuing freedom of movement for Scots in Europe.

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All observers can agree on one thing though. None of Nicola Sturgeon’s demands will be met or even seriously considered today – because no British politician wants Scotland to have serious new powers and flexibility isn’t regarded as a strength in British politics. So although Ms Sturgeon’s package is possible to realise, although Scotland’s 62 per cent remain vote makes it a reasonable negotiating pitch and although a Scottish opt out would get Theresa May out of a sticky spot, head off indyref2 (for a while) and demonstrate the UK can act flexibly – the Prime Minister won’t bite.

She will instead repeat her insistence on a one-size-fits-all Brexit. It could so easily be otherwise. Take Denmark. It chose to become a member of the EEC in 1973, but the Danish Faroes had such a powerfully devolved parliament that it could simply decide not to join (fishing makes up 90 per cent of Faroese income). And it did.

Greenland was forced to join the EU along with Denmark because its devolved parliament in 1973 was as weak as Scotland’s is today. But when it wrested more control from Copenhagen in the mid 80s, the Greenlanders voted to leave the EU and once again – that was that.

The contemptuous tone of the Brexit debate, the supplication demanded of the Scottish First Minister and the “one singer–one song” stance of Theresa May provide vivid proof of the Scottish Parliament’s relative lack of clout. Now it’s clear Holyrood can only be described as “powerful” when the example of almost every other European neighbour is excluded.

Happily though, Brexit means those flexible and truly devolved arrangements are being studied in some depth – at long last - and offer a stark contrast to the top down, rigid nature of the British state.

“My way or the highway” is still the standard British Government response to pleas for opt-outs or flexibility. But the big problem for Theresa May is that her hardball stance on “exceptions” to a hard Brexit will soon be exposed as a lie. Behind the scenes opt-outs aplenty are being considered for constituencies that matter to Theresa May – naturally Scotland is not amongst them.

Top of her priority list is the City of London whose powerful Remain-voting bosses are thoroughly panicked by the prospect of banks leaving en masse once Article 50 is triggered in March. According to the Chief Executive of the British Bankers’ Association Anthony Browne this weekend, “their hands are quivering over the relocate button.” Meanwhile delegations from Madrid, Frankfurt and Dublin are settled in plush London hotels openly wooing bank chiefs to recreate “the City” elsewhere. If only Scotland was in a position to join that bidding war.

Of course, UK Government ministers insist the threat of banking departure is exaggerated, but there’s been much speculation in the financial press that Britain will offer to keep paying into EU coffers to retain “passporting” for the UK’s financial sector and persuade those “quivering” bosses to stay. But of course, cushioning Brexit for the banks has a snag. It must be done openly before March to avoid a mass exodus – yet if that happens those denied special treatment will be beeling. Especially if the only substantial players left without a deal are the Scots.

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The car manufacturer Nissan has apparently obtained some assurance from Theresa May, that should mean it keeps producing cars in the UK. After a Downing Street meeting last week Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn said: “We’re not asking for any advantage but we don’t want to lose competitiveness no matter what the discussions.”

Mr Ghosn said the British Government assured him they would be “extremely cautious” in “preserving the competitiveness” of the Sunderland plant.

“As long as I have this guarantee ... I can look at the future of Sunderland with more ease,” he said. Well, well. If there is a Nissan opt-out from expected post-Brexit tariffs of 10 percent on car exports, will other car manufacturers stand quietly by? And if car manufacturers are given special treatment what about other industries? The Spanish Government says the only way citizens of Gibraltar can retain freedom of movement is joint sovereignty – so Theresa May is under pressure to devise an opt out for the tiny enclave where 96% voted to remain. And of course there is the special and delicate problem of Ireland – both sides of the border voted to remain in the EU mostly because membership removes the vexed problem of an internal border. The UK Government suggests that post-Brexit the border could lie outside Ireland -- at ports of entry in the UK. But the Unionist-led Stormont government rejects that because British citizens from Northern Ireland would be treated the same as those from the Irish Republic. If there is a bolder geographical fix offered to Northern Ireland, Scotland will be the only important player left out in the cold. Whether that triggers indyref2 or not, Scots must explore our international options now. A Nordic Horizons conference this Saturday will hear six Nordic speakers describe the merits and demerits of their own EU arrangements. Characteristically the Nordic nations cheerfully travel and trade with one another and with Europe despite having almost every variation of relationship with the EU. In another world that should interest Britain’s Brexit negotiators. In this world, it only interests Scots readying themselves for Theresa May’s unrelenting stance on Brexit – and the profound economic and democratic consequences that will flow from her highly selective cold shoulder.