Pascal Lamy, the World Trade Organisation’s former director-general, yesterday suggested extricating the UK from the European Union would be “as difficult as removing an egg from an omelette”. Judging by the current state of negotiations about devolution in post-Brexit Britain, Mr Lamy may actually have been understating the problem.
For the current spat over claims of a “power grab” by Westminster, pitting Theresa May against Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and Carwyn Jones in Wales, seems to be heading for trouble.
The dispute centres on about 25 powers in devolved areas that are currently controlled by Brussels and which Westminster wants to retain, at least for the time being.
In Wales, Mr Jones has said it is “simply not acceptable” for Westminster to take control of policy areas that are currently devolved, while Ms Sturgeon has warned she will not “sign up to something that effectively undermines the whole foundation on which devolution is built”.
Both devolved governments have tabled their own “Continuity Bills” that would introduce the disputed EU laws in Scotland and Wales in defiance of Westminster. The problem for Ms May is that devolving some of these powers could lead to different regulations in different parts of the country, fragmenting the UK single market and complicating Westminster’s ability to negotiate the international trade deals that it will need to make with the rest of the world in double-quick time. What makes the problem so difficult is that both sides have a point. When the devolved parliaments were created, Britain’s place in the European Union seemed so secure that no one even considered the possibility of leaving, so how these issues should be handled is uncharted territory; our politicians are making it up as they go along – and it shows.
No one has yet come up with a way to square the circle over the Northern Ireland border issue – maintaining the soft Irish border required under the Good Friday peace deal, while also creating the hard border between the UK and EU that will be required if Britain leaves the EU Single Market. But the devolution question is turning out to be almost equally intractable with little sign of a solution acceptable to both sides.
It is certainly an unintended consequence, but our divorce from the EU is causing serious ructions within the family of nations that make up the UK.