Nicola Sturgeon says Scots could go it alone on Brexit deals

The Scottish Government is 'actively' working on possible stand-alone deals with the European Union after Brexit in key areas such as law and order as well as education that may exclude the rest of the UK.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed her officials were “looking very carefully” at arrangements which would allow Scotland to remain in key EU programmes like the Erasmus student exchange scheme and the Horizon 2020 research initiative, along with crime-fighting initiatives.

The Scottish Government published a paper a year ago setting out the prospect of a stand-alone Scottish deal with the EU post-Brexit. Among the scenarios examined was whether Scotland could remain in the single market while the UK leaves.

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“That was dismissed by the UK government as impossible,” Ms Sturgeon said as she took questions following a speech at the David Hume Institute in Edinburgh on Tuesday.

Nicola Sturgeon made the comments during a speech to the David Hume Institute in Edinburgh. Picture: AFP/John Linton/Getty

“But although I know it’s not their preferred option, they have contemplated that for Northern Ireland if that’s what it takes to resolve some of the issues in the island of Ireland. So we know that those differential arrangements are not impossible.

“So we are exploring and investigating all of that. Short of a blanket differential arrangement, there are things we’re looking very carefully at.

“Could Scotland stay within, even if the UK doesn’t, Erasmus for example, Horizon 2020, some criminal justice elements too? So we are actively exploring all of those things. We mustn’t just accept that there is an inevitability of a really hard, damaging Brexit.”

The Erasmus scheme allows students to take up part of their studies in partner EU countries. Horizon 2020 – Europe’s Research and Innovation programme – has made tens of billions of pounds in funding available in 2014 to 2020 for cutting-edge projects. There are areas in justice where the EU has responsibility, but the Scottish Government could wish to remain part of crime-fighting agencies like Europol and stay part of the European arrest warrant.

Nicola Sturgeon made the comments during a speech to the David Hume Institute in Edinburgh. Picture: AFP/John Linton/Getty

Ms Sturgeon also insisted the House of Commons could block a “hard Brexit”. The First Minister said the “only sensible post Brexit position” was for the UK to remain in Europe’s single market and the customs union. The EU referendum in 2016 “gave no mandate for leaving the single market”, she added.

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A Scottish Government report yesterday suggested leaving the EU without a trade deal in place would wipe £12.7 billion a year from Scotland’s economy by 2030.

Ms Sturgeon used her speech to the David Hume Institute to warn that the UK’s Brexit plans were in “complete chaos”, with Theresa May and her government in a state of “wilful denial” about the complexity of leaving the European Union.

She said that in talks with the EU last year, the UK Government had been “forced to capitulate” after adopting a “completely unrealistic” starting position.

And she forecast than 2018 would be the year when “rhetoric will finally meet reality” over Brexit.

The First Minister insisted the “only sensible post Brexit position” would be for the UK to remain in Europe’s single market and the customs union.

Ms Sturgeon also continued to make the case for Scotland to be allowed to take a “different approach” to immigration after the UK leaves the EU.

The First Minister’s speech came after European Council president Donald Tusk demanded more clarity from Mrs May over her Brexit plans.

The SNP leader said: “It is disturbing that the UK Government’s plans still seem to be - and I am putting this as gently as I possibly can - in a state of complete chaos.

“That’s partly because there still seems to be a wilful denial of the complexity of Brexit.”

While the Prime Minister “continues to suggest that no deal is a viable option for the UK”, the SNP leader said such a scenario would be “terrible”.

She stated: “2018 is the year when that rhetoric will finally meet reality.

“On every issue of substance so far where some decision has been taken - for example the timetable for talks, and settling the UK’s budget obligations - the UK Government has set out a completely unrealistic starting position, and then been forced to capitulate.

“That seems almost certain to happen again this year if they stick to unrealistic positions.

“Far better, surely, to stop wasting time and squandering goodwill and instead embark on these negotiations with a sensible and credible position at the outset.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “In the view of the Scottish Government, that sensible - the only sensible post Brexit position - is continued membership of the single market and customs union.”

She stated the European referendum in 2016 “gave no mandate for leaving the single market” and given the closeness of the vote - with 52 per cent having voted for Brexit - and with both Scotland and Northern Ireland having voted to remain, a “soft Brexit rather than a hard Brexit should be the UK Government’s default position”.

She said: “Single market membership isn’t just the best way of minimising the economic harm of Brexit, it is the obvious democratic compromise in a divided UK.

“And so my priority for the year ahead is to continue to make the case for single market and customs union membership.

“I believe that that’s a position which can and should command majority support both across the country and in the UK parliament. And so throughout 2018, as First Minister and as leader of my party, I will work with anyone and everyone - across the political spectrum and across these islands - to contribute towards that outcome.”