MEP David Martin sees opportunity for devolved powers to elbow in on trade talks

Labour former minister Ben Bradshaw (bottom right) throws copies of the Brexit White Paper to colleagues in the House of Commons on Thursday.
Labour former minister Ben Bradshaw (bottom right) throws copies of the Brexit White Paper to colleagues in the House of Commons on Thursday.
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The Scottish Government can “elbow its way in” to Brexit talks by threatening to refuse to implement parts of the “common rulebook” for goods proposed by Theresa May in her white paper on future trade with the EU, Scotland’s most senior MEP has said.

David Martin, a Labour MEP for Scotland since 1984 and a member of the European Parliament international trade committee, said the Scottish Government would have to agree to implement EU rules in areas like agrifoods, where responsibility is devolved, and had the power to derail the UK’s trade talks with Brussels.

Martin also warned of the growing risk of a “blind Brexit”, where the EU is forced to accept a skeleton agreement that doesn’t fully address future trade because negotiating time runs out ahead of Brexit day on 29 March, 2019.

Sources in Brussels and London said plans are under consideration for an emergency EU summit in November if an agreement isn’t ready for the next scheduled meeting of European leaders in October.

The white paper published on Thursday sets out how the UK would agree to sign up to a common rulebook on industrial goods and agrifood products, keeping one foot in the single market to keep trade flowing after Brexit.

However, the document does not make clear what role devolved administrations would have in deciding how that rulebook will be agreed or enforced, either as part of a proposed arbitration mechanism between the UK and EU, or domestically.

Negotiations between London and the devolved administrations are ongoing on how co-operation will work in 24 areas, including aspects of agriculture and fisheries, where Westminster will keep control of EU powers touching on devolved competences.

Martin said the white paper showed it was possible for the Scottish Government to “elbow its way in” to trade talks with the EU.

“Unlike the process so far, where the Scottish Government has been squeezed out and frankly has not had many cards to play, I think on the future trade deal they do have a bigger role,” he said. “They can say, look if you don’t put us in the negotiations if you don’t include us in the discussions, we’re not going to apply these measures.

“The examples I’d use for that is Canada. A lot of what the federal government was trying to negotiate [with the EU], for example on public procurement, was in the hands of the provincial authorities, and they managed to get to the negotiating table on that basis. The Canadian government had to consult the provinces through the whole process to make sure they were on board.”

Both EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and the Scottish Government’s Brexit Secretary, Michael Russell, are expected to respond in detail to the white paper this week.

Martin said that while there were parts of the Prime Minister’s plan that Brussels would reject, he feared the EU could be forced into a “blind Brexit” that left much of the future relationship for negotiation after March 2019.

“I think Barnier is going to welcome the fact that we have something to negotiate on – that there is at least a broad outline of what the government are seeking,” he said.

“I think there will be an acceptance of the fact that there’s less cake-and-eat-it in this white paper.”

Raising the prospect of the European Parliament refusing to ratify a skeleton deal, Martin added: “I find it impossible to imagine this can be done by October. My worry is that… the EU might grab a settlement on the three big issues, which we more or less have got anyway: the budget, citizens, and the Northern Ireland situation.

“For me, that’s entirely unsatisfactory in terms of both what the House of Commons will have to vote on, and what the European Parliament will have to vote on.

“I fear that’s where we’re going: a bit more flesh than we had, but still not a clear indication of what the 
future arrangements are going to be.

“I would be unhappy, and I would hope the majority [of MEPs] would be, too.”