Brexit and Scotland: What Happens Next?

27 March 2018

© 2018 SCER

The Scottish Centre on European Relations, in partnership with the European Commission Office in Scotland and the University of Dundee, organised a public panel discussion in Dundee in March at the University’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. The event considered how the Brexit talks are developing, the possible options going forward and the implications for Scotland, the UK and EU27. The panel speakers were Dr Kirsty Hughes (Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations), Professor Alan Page (Professor of Public Law, University of Dundee) and Kieran Andrews (Politics and Investigations Reporter, The Sunday Post), and the chair was Professor Kurt Mills (Professor of International Relations and Human Rights, University of Dundee).

Opening Remarks from the Panel

The panel focused its opening remarks on three main themes: (1) the state of the Brexit negotiations, (2) party politics in Scotland around Brexit and (3) the debate on devolution and powers. The Brexit negotiations are reaching the point where attention is beginning to shift from the withdrawal agreement and transition to the future relationship. On the UK side, it was noted that the UK government has maintained its commitment to leave the single market and the customs union after a short transition period. Although it was argued that any form of Brexit will be damaging to the UK, this hard Brexit strategy was described as particularly damaging to the economy and society.

On the EU27, the European Council’s recently issued March guidelines for the negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and the UK were short and clear – a special, bespoke deal is not an option. Given the UK’s red lines, a Canada-style free trade agreement remains where Brexit is heading – it was said that was an outcome which would negatively impact on UK services trade in particular. In the negotiations, the Ireland/Northern Ireland border was noted as a significant unresolved issue. Considering that progress has been made on the withdrawal agreement and on securing the transition, it was argued that it is now more likely that Brexit will happen with a deal in place – but also that, in these unpredictable circumstances, any outcome is still possible.

The politics in Scotland around Brexit were said to be responsive to the developments between the UK and the EU, but also situated in the context of the independence debate and the devolved powers debate. It was remarked that for the Conservatives, whatever Brexit arrangements are reached, Prime Minister Theresa May faces a divided government due to conflicts between Remainers and Leavers within the UK cabinet and party. The Westminster arithmetic also points to support for a soft Brexit in parliament, which contrasts with the government’s hard Brexit policy. The Scottish Conservatives, it was remarked, will have to defend the kind of Brexit Theresa May negotiates, but they in any event currently, in the main, back the UK government’s approach.

The Scottish National Party continues to argue for the whole UK, including Scotland, to remain in the single market and customs union after Brexit, despite this approach being discounted by Theresa May last year. Scottish Labour is arguing, as Labour is across the UK, for a ‘jobs first’ Brexit and a customs union deal with the EU, but it remains unclear what that means for the relationship with the single market. The Scottish Liberal Democrats echo their UK party’s message of holding another referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal. Interestingly, it was noted that the Lib Dems resolutely pro-EU message has not translated into a significant increase in electoral support.

With Brexit now part of the political landscape, the independence debate has become more complex – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon asked the UK government to hold another independence referendum last year but, after losses in the snap general election, those plans are off the table for now. The question was raised of how Scotland’s parties are representing both remain and leave voters – and whether, for instance, arguing for a soft Brexit supports the position of either or both of these groups. On a further EU referendum on the deal, it was noted that timing in gathering sufficient support for a vote would be crucial if it were to happen – as would the campaign positions of the Scottish parties.

Moreover, it was noted that the debate on powers after Brexit has become one of the focal points of domestic politics in Scotland. The main issue has been whether EU powers in currently devolved areas should return directly to Holyrood or go to Westminster first. It was suggested that the pre-existing weak nature of relations between the UK government and devolved governments has made it more difficult to reach a resolution on this issue. The EU Withdrawal bill, in particular its clause 11 on devolution, without amendment could well damage devolution after Brexit.

Most EU competences are currently reserved – such as the four freedoms of the single market, immigration and trade policy – so Westminster’s power will increase after Brexit in any case. The Scottish government, it was said, has therefore been looking to protect the existing devolution settlement, but also to represent its interests in post-Brexit reserved matters. The main fear on the Welsh and Scottish governments’ part is that devolution could be rolled back, or even that Scotland could be moved from a reserved powers model to a conferred powers model in the process of Brexit. Nevertheless, a compromise resolution could well be found, if the Scottish and UK government can agree which powers should return to Holyrood and what role the Scottish government will have in those powers subject to common UK frameworks – with the question of consent or consultation remaining key.

Questions and Discussion with the Audience

The questions from the audience were varied and reflected the multifaceted nature of the Brexit debate. In light of recent discussions on personal data, the internet and politics, the point was raised of how the EU referendum was run and the extent to which people’s data was used to tailor campaigning and marketing. It was noted that this issue has been raised in other electoral contests in the UK and elsewhere, including in the 2017 snap general election, and that ensuring greater transparency in how campaigning can be targeted at specific groups online would be important to restoring faith in the democratic process.

Another point raised was the question of how language is used around Brexit, and whether the many metaphorical terms and acronyms limit public understanding and participation in the debate. At the same time, it was suggested that the complexity of Brexit sometimes necessitates easier ways of representing the key concepts. The question was also raised of how both sides of the Brexit divide move forward in the long term – and how long the remain and leave labels will persist. It was argued that a major part of the whole EU debate was about people’s voices not being hard, and the ‘Brexit iceberg’ is but a representation of the unease which some in society have about their lives and futures.

On the outlook for Brexit and the direction of the UK, it was remarked that the choices are fairly clear for the future UK-EU relationship – a Norway-style, soft Brexit or a Canada-style, hard Brexit (or no Brexit – or no-deal Brexit). While the UK government remains on a hard Brexit track, it was suggested that if UK Labour changed its position and held the government to greater account, that might shift the Westminster debate substantially. In terms of the impact of Brexit, one notable remark was that this might be the first time where government has deliberately pursued a course of action that it knows will make everyone worse off. As for what happens once the terms of the Brexit deal are known, or the negotiations collapse – whether in the latter case a new general election, an EU referendum or another independence referendum could be on the cards – the panel agreed that it was difficult to predict what the future will hold.

The panel discussion at the University of Dundee is pictured above