Theresa May will finally fire the starting gun for Brexit talks when she triggers Article 50 this Wednesday. Within 48 hours, the European Council president, Donald Tusk, has indicated he will then publish draft guidelines setting out the EU27’s approach. Will Scotland get sidelined as the exit negotiations get under way, or will the Sturgeon-May stand-off over the timing of a second independence referendum remain a focus of attention?
It is clear that May would like the debate across the UK to focus on the details of Brexit. She has insisted, implausibly (but unconstrained by the Commons) that if Westminster votes ‘no’ to the exit deal in autumn 2018, then the outcome will be no deal, not a return to the negotiating table – or a political crisis. She has asserted – contrary to what many in Brussels believe – that Article 50 is irreversible. And she would clearly like the debate in Scotland to move onto issues around devolution of powers after Brexit, the details of the Great Repeal Bill and the future UK-EU27 trade deal, and to move away from any discussion of Scotland as an independent member of the EU.
The independence debate is, of course, not going away – and Holyrood will surely vote for a second referendum on the eve of May’s triggering of Article 50. But while the UK and EU27 get down to managing very tricky talks that will doubtless get extremely bad-tempered at various points, Scotland’s debates on Brexit and independence risk being sidelined.
The EU27’s draft guidelines on the talks are likely to be a deliberate wake-up call to the UK. It is already clear that there will be a clash between the UK and EU27’s approaches – including on when the talks will turn to the future UK-EU deal. And while the European Council won’t even meet to confirm its guidelines until the end of April, from the end of next week, there will be plenty of visible disagreements for politicians and commentators to get their teeth into.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is not likely to finally sit across the negotiating table from David Davis until late May. Barnier has made it clear he wants first to talk about the rights of EU citizens and the UK’s budget liabilities before possibly starting trade talks in December. The UK may start by denying it has any budget liabilities and will demand parallel talks on the future trade deal. This could get fractious, and pushed up to head of government level, very fast – though German elections in September could slow things down.
Meanwhile, there will be plenty for opposition parties at Westminster and for the Scottish government, Scottish MPs and Holyrood to dig into. The Great Repeal Bill will take much political attention, ensuring EU laws get transferred into UK law – and don’t get watered down in the process. Arguments over whether EU powers over agriculture, environment and fisheries go to Scotland or stay, in whole or in part, at UK level are already well under way.
Theresa May has indicated she will play her negotiating cards close to her chest but the Brexit talks are likely to leak extensively, given the number of players. So there will be plenty of scope for political debate over the emerging terms of Brexit.
Amidst all this, the Scottish government will be demanding May agrees a date for an independence referendum, while independence debates doubtless continue. As the shape of a future UK-EU trade deal becomes apparent, and the costs and complexity of Brexit get clearer, this might boost those arguing for Scottish independence in the EU.
But it might also provide material to the anti-independence side who will continue to say any second referendum should wait until after the Brexit date in March 2019, when everything is clearer. They will probably also argue that the future UK-EU trade deal looks good. But the future trade deal may well not be finally agreed – if it is at all – for five to ten years. Unless a second referendum is delayed until 2027, both sides will have to get used to debating amidst uncertainty over the definitive shape of a final UK-EU deal.
Theresa May, and many on the anti-independence side, will be perfectly happy if political attention increasingly focuses on the Great Repeal Bill, devolution of EU powers and leaked details of the talks while arguments about an independent Scotland’s route to the EU get sidelined. Nicola Sturgeon, on her side, will have to find a way to defend Scotland’s interests across the Brexit talks while also promoting independence in the EU. It is going to be a noisy, complex debate within the UK, within Scotland, and between the EU27 and UK. Where, and on what, Scottish voices are heard is going to be a key question for all sides.