Paris Gourtsoyannis: Sturgeon still relying on Brexit talks

A smooth Brexit and free trade with the EU could be as important for Sturgeon as May, says Paris Gourtsoyannis

Despite her announcement on a second independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon will continue to have a strong interest in Theresa Mays Brexit negotiations. Picture: Getty Images

Until about a quarter to twelve yesterday, the UK was heading out of the EU with a shrug.

Any prospect of a major backbench Tory rebellion over the triggering of Article 50 had melted away. The biggest threat to Theresa May’s Brexit timetable was the prospect of Liberal Democrat peers camping out in the House of Lords in an attempt to stop the government stripping amendments from its trigger bill.

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The only real question was whether the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill would be signed by the Queen over her tea or at breakfast.

The stakes are a bit higher now.

Whether you believe Scotland is being taken out of Europe against its will or that the SNP are hijacking Brexit to their own ends, yesterday’s announcement by Nicola Sturgeon became inevitable on the morning of 24 June last year.

But by gazumping the passage of the Article 50 bill and the possible (now deferred) triggering of Brexit this week, the First Minister injected some drama into a nine-month process that itself has taken a long time to get where it was always going.

The idea that voting to leave the EU would risk the cohesion of the UK was dismissed as one of the Project Fear attacks of the Remain campaign. Now, with a Scottish independence campaign already being fought, the future of Northern Ireland in doubt, and nationalists in Wales working more closely with an increasingly militant Welsh Labour party than ever before, those who claimed as much should look in the mirror.

Only committed activists will look on the prospect of yet another referendum - the fourth held in Scotland since 2011 - with anything other than weary resignation. Over the next two years, the UK faces constitutional crises on three fronts.

Will it even happen? Already the UK Government has said Sturgeon’s timetable of an independence vote in late 2018 or early 2019 is the “worst possible time”. It would come at the climax of the Brexit process, when a deal would either be in the final stages of being thrashed out, or having been agreed, making its way around the continent seeking the approval of every legislature in Europe - in either case with the two-year deadline looming.

The consensus is that ministers won’t countenance a referendum before Brexit is concluded, if at all. But the government equally wants to avoid a scenario where Scotland is prevented from holding a second vote and the matter becomes a running sore. With perfect timing, Spain’s Constitutional Court yesterday banned the former Catalan leader, Artur Mas, from public office for two years for organising an unofficial referendum. If Brexit has put the UK’s Heath Robinson constitution under strain, a protracted fight over whether a referendum can take place might be too much to bear. At the very least, it would give nationalists a grievance of mythical proportions.

Sturgeon says she has been driven to this point because the doomed process to try and find common ground with the UK Government is certain to fail. But even though indyref2 is the orphan child of Brexit, the First Minister will continue to take a close interest in how negotiations with Brussels unfold.

A transitional Brexit deal between the UK and the EU is now as important to Sturgeon as it is to May. The European Commission quickly confirmed its position yesterday that an independent Scotland would have to reapply to become a member of the EU. The idea that Scotland can seamlessly slip into the clothes of the UK’s membership as it is abandoned was always a fantasy.

And just as the UK Government will struggle to negotiate Brexit while reaching over its shoulder to fight off a guerilla independence campaign, Scotland would have struggled to talk its way back into Europe at the same time as talking its way out of the UK. The timings set out by the First Minister make this much clear - Scotland is leaving the EU with the rest of the UK.

If Brexit takes effect in spring 2019, it cannot be credible to claim that Scotland will stay in the EU after the UK leaves - the timescales are impossibly short. But if May succeeds in securing a transitional arrangement that eases the UK out of the single market, maintaining - at least initially - unfettered free movement of goods, service and people, it could make Sturgeon’s case easier to argue.

Sturgeon also needs there to be a good prospect of a quick and comprehensive free trade deal with the EU on the table for the UK. There is no escaping the relative size of Scotland’s trade with the UK versus with Europe - £49.8 billion versus £12.3 billion. More than the value of North Sea oil or the size of Scotland’s deficit, that figure will be at the centre of the economic case advanced by Unionists.

The best, and possibly the only way to neutralise that argument is if a free trade deal with the EU is on the horizon at the end of a transitional phase after Brexit.

On social media, many who experienced the nastier side of the 2014 referendum fear that the next one, if and when it takes place, will simply dial up the volume on division and rancour. On the ground, the next campaign is set to be even more intense than the last one - it is now effectively an all-or-nothing affair for nationalists as well as Unionists - but the broad strokes of the campaign are unlikely to be in the same image. The EU referendum will loom much larger. Sturgeon has promised not to run a “fact-free” campaign, but already the prospectus she is laying out sounds like “take back control”, with sovereignty arguments trumping economic ones.

The key question for the pro-independence campaign then becomes how quickly and how deeply it argues Scotland will re-engage with the EU in the event of a Yes vote. Will the halfway-house of EFTA be dangled as one possible future to win over those eurosceptic nationalists like Jim Sillars who now say they’ll vote against independence if it means EU membership? Indyref2 may be more about Scotland’s place in Europe than even the SNP wants.