‘Scotland: What Strategy as Brexit Talks Get Under Way?’ – New Policy Paper by SCER

18 May 2017

Brexit is the elephant in the room in Scotland’s general election debate, but with Brexit talks under way by mid-June, all Scotland’s political parties – the Scottish government, MPs and MSPs – need clear strategic positions on the vast range of Brexit issues if Scotland’s interests are to be defended. Brexit needs to be focused on, not ignored.

Dr Kirsty Hughes, SCER Director, sets out seven big strategic Brexit issues for Scotland, from migration to trade to the implications for Scotland if a deal is done on the Ireland/Northern Ireland border. She argues that Scottish interests would be best served by a UK transition (between its exit deal and the final UK-EU27 trade deal) via the European Economic Area.

Kirsty Hughes said:

“Brexit will impact widely across Scotland’s economic, social and political structures. Consultative processes look entirely inadequate given the centralised approach of Theresa May. But Scottish politicians need to up their strategic game to defend Scotland’s corner – both to influence the talks and as powers return from the EU to the UK. That’s a challenge for all Scotland’s political parties, not just the Scottish government.”

Dr Hughes also said:

“Politics in many ways may dominate policy in these Brexit debates, since it is likely that, repeatedly, decisions will be taken at UK level not at Holyrood or by the Scottish government. But serious political argument and contesting of the UK’s Brexit strategy will also need serious alternative strategies.”

Scotland: What Strategy as Brexit Talks Get Under Way? outlines seven key strategic areas for Scotland:

1) Money, EU & UK citizens and borders: The eventual deal to ensure a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland could have many implications for Scotland and needs closely watching, but it may only be partly relevant to Scotland rather than represent something Scotland could imitate.

2) UK-EU comprehensive trade deal: The UK is currently heading towards a hard Brexit, outside the single market and customs union, with seriously negative implications for Scotland’s trade with the EU as there will be new non-tariff barriers. Scottish politicians will find it hard to influence these talks.

3) Transition deal: The best transition arrangements for the UK – after it leaves the EU in March 2019 and before a full UK-EU27 deal is agreed some years later – would be to transition via the European Economic Area. Most of Scotland’s political parties – those which support staying in the EU’s single market – should back this. If there is a second independence referendum, an EEA transition for the UK would also simplify Scotland rejoining the EU – if there was a ‘yes’ vote. If May rejects the EEA route, it will be vital at least to avoid a hard transition – one that is abrupt, inadequately planned and that creates uncertainty.

4) Policy and regulatory choices: In the absence of clarity from the UK government, Scottish politicians and parties should move ahead and set out their desired regulatory structures and which of the EU’s 34 regulatory agencies (from environment to drugs to health and safety to food safety) the UK should aim to stay associated with. They should also set out clear proposals for new UK and Scottish regulatory structures and challenge the UK government to set out their own full and detailed proposals.

5) Repatriation of EU powers and devolved competences: Political battles are already under way over repatriation of agriculture, fisheries and environmental policies. Full return of these powers to Scotland would require Scotland to have significant powers with respect to future UK trade policy – something the UK government is unlikely to concede. A partial return of powers will also require rapid choices to be made between different policy options in these areas – both at UK level and in Scotland – in particular whether the Scottish government would aim to keep policies closely aligned to EU ones.

6) Migration policy: The UK government looks likely to establish a significantly more restrictive migration policy. Scottish economic and wider interests in a more open migration policy will need to continue to be argued for – whether through flexibility in UK-level migration policy or through devolution of some aspects of migration policy. The latter currently looks unlikely.

7) Scotland-EU Relations: The Scottish government’s diplomatic efforts across the EU in the last year have been well received. But the EU27 are unlikely to take Scotland’s interests into account when negotiating with the UK. Nicola Sturgeon’s push for Scotland to be represented at the table is unlikely to happen.

Contact: Kirsty Hughes can be contacted by email

The Scottish Centre on European Relations is an independent and unaligned EU think tank, based in Edinburgh.