Securing agreement in the first round of the UK/EU negotiations – on citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the so-called divorce bill – was supposed to be the easier part of the Brexit process. In fact, as we all saw from the chaos preceding the European Council meeting, it was tortuous, cliff-hanging and messy with UK Ministers attempting to spin their way out of an eventual climbdown on every major point. A former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Nick MacPherson, described it as “not so much a negotiation, more a drive-by shooting”.
Yet the scale of the challenge that lies ahead is even greater. Once the detail of what was agreed has been written down in legal language – which will be difficult for the UK Government politically and constitutionally as the reality of the special deal for Northern Ireland becomes clear – the discussion moves on to finalising the transition. This will see some minor adjustments for areas of annual negotiation, such as fishing and agriculture, and then negotiations on the future trading relationship, which will throw up many problems. We already know that, no matter how many “pluses” David Davis tries to put after the word “Canada”, what is likely to be on offer – defined by the red lines that Theresa May has set – is a far cry from the Chancellor’s expectation of “business as usual”. It is a free-trade relationship to which addition of services, or anything else, is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Astonishingly, 18 months after the EU referendum, the UK Cabinet only sat down for the first time to consider what it actually wanted as a final outcome a few days before Christmas. The Prime Minister has of course at various times opined on what the relationship should be, but all the pronouncements have been typically vague and usually couched in terms of what wouldn’t do, rather than what would. No wonder some have called these UK Government Brexit pronouncements “magical thinking”. Others rightly accuse the Prime Minister of wanting to have her cake and eat it.
That’s because the UK Government still seems to think it can get all of the benefits, and more, of EU membership, without any of the obligations. That is simply not going to happen for it is Mrs May’s own “red lines” which have boxed the UK into a less than advantageous corner. The EU’s chief negotiator himself has made that point.
Such a free-trade relationship would in fact mean that the EU would end up having a closer relationship with Turkey or Ukraine than with Scotland – even though Scotland voted convincingly to stay in the EU and, polls show, is even more firmly of that opinion now.
It is therefore time for some realism. Mrs May previously accepted a Canadian-type deal would not be right for the UK, not least because it would exclude services – now the most important part of the Scottish and UK economy. This means the damaging, self-defeating red lines have to go. Mrs May should stand up to the extreme Brexiteers and commit to remaining in the European Single Market and Customs Union. The reasons for this approach are convincing and overwhelmingly clear.
For a start it is simply not possible to secure a free-trade deal with the EU that is better than what we have at present. That was obvious to the Scottish Government over a year ago, when we confirmed that short of EU membership, staying in the Single Market was our preferred option. Over the last year that position has been seen to be the wisest one as further evidence has emerged of just how crucial the European Single Market is, not just for our present activity but our whole economic future. The Single Market is the world’s most lucrative marketplace, with a customer base of 500 million, and is more than eight times the size of the UK market. Our interest in staying in the Single Market, having the closest relationship with its institutions and securing the closest regulatory alignment possible are matters that affect communities the length and breadth of Scotland.
Whether it’s hill farmers in the Highlands who depend on EU CAP payments, universities which attract key European researchers to Scotland, food processors who depend on EU workers, or hospitals and care homes that rely on EU staff, the consequences of a Brexit that divides us from the Single Market – and particularly from the so-called “four freedoms” – will be felt by us all. There are also areas where Scotland has been a leading player in EU developments and in which our absence will be felt. For example, our ambitious actions to tackle climate change and introduce a more circular economy – where valuable resources are kept in use rather than being thrown away – have attracted interest from the EU and considerable international praise.
One of the biggest fears is about the effect of Brexit on citizen’s rights – ours and those rightly exercised here by EU citizens. Consider the worries faced by EU citizens who have chosen to make Scotland their home. They want to stay and we also need to attract people to come here. Growing our working-age population is absolutely crucial for our economy and our fellow EU nationals play a hugely important role in helping ensure we have vibrant communities especially in areas of population decline.
Sadly, the UK Government’s determination to end freedom of movement and its tin ear to the concerns of our country and our companies regarding migration mean there is a real risk Scotland’s working population will fall, which would seriously damage our economy. Scotland is not full up and it is time the UK Government recognised the need for, at a minimum, a differentiated migration policy north of the border, of a type that it is common in Canada’s different provinces and parts of Australia. Of course it works the other way too. Many of us not only want to continue to be able to work in the EU, we need to do so to maintain our businesses. We also want to continue to be European citizens with all the concomitant rights that have been developed over the years. Gaining a dark blue passport that keeps us at home is little consolation for losing one that guarantees not just access to 27 other countries, but also some of the most modern and effective human and employment rights anywhere in the world.
Over the 18 months since Scotland voted decisively to remain in the EU, we have been fighting hard to protect the interests of our country and our people here in Scotland, at a UK, EU and international level. On the current UK Brexit timetable there are only 15 months left before leaving the EU with perhaps a further 21 months of transition.
There will be no let-up in our efforts to make a difference. We will do everything we can to influence the UK-EU negotiations and continually look for the options which minimise the damage to Scotland from Brexit. For businesses, citizens and communities that must mean remaining within the European Single Market and Customs Union. Nothing less will do and more – continuing in the EU – would be better still. Let’s remember as 2018 gets underway that nothing we’ve heard from the Brexiteers – either inside the UK Government or those outside continuing their ideological rampage to force that Government to their will – has provided a scrap of evidence that we will be better off.
Brexit was and remains a false prospectus and it is increasingly seen to be one. There is considerable evidence which shows Scotland will be much worse off if we allow Brexiteers – in Holyrood or Westminster – to have their selfish and destructive way.