Brexit – Scotland, the UK and EU27: Key Issues

21 May 2018

© 2018 European Commission

The Scottish Centre on European Relations, in partnership with the European Commission Office in Scotland and the University of the Highlands and Islands, organised a public panel discussion in Oban in May at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS). 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 Linda Stewart (Director of European and International Development, University of the Highlands and Islands), Mure Dickie (Scotland Correspondent, Financial Times) and Anthony Salamone (Research Fellow and Strategic Advisor, Scottish Centre on European Relations), and the chair was Dr Michele Stanley FRSB (Reader in Marine Biotechnology, Scottish Association for Marine Science).

Opening Remarks from the Panel

The event began with an opening statement by video from Michael Russell MSP, Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe and the constituency MSP for Oban (Argyll and Bute). Mr Russell outlined the Scottish Government’s priorities on Brexit, primarily focusing on limiting the damage of EU withdrawal and achieving a soft Brexit, and reiterated the negative consequences that Brexit will bring to the Highlands and Islands. The panel focused their opening remarks on three main themes: (1) the state of Brexit negotiations, (2) the impact on the Highlands and Islands and (3) the political context in Scotland.

Reflecting on the withdrawal negotiations overall, the panel noted that the UK government has continued to pursue its hard Brexit course of leaving the EU single market and customs union, despite divisions within the government itself and levels of support in the UK parliament for a soft Brexit. A key point was that, at this stage in the Article 50 process, time is now extremely limited and the countdown is on to the autumn of 2018 (when a Brexit deal is supposed to be finalised) and to March 2019 (when Brexit is supposed to take place). It was noted that the length of the transition is currently quite short – and not sufficient to conclude a future relationship deal – but that it is unclear whether or how long the EU would be willing or able to make extensions to a transition period.

The panel noted that Brexit is not particularly high on the EU27 agenda any longer. The EU has other pressing priorities including, most recently, the politics in Italy around the euro, the Transatlantic relationship and Russia’s geostrategic manoeuvrings. The EU27 have also remained largely united on Brexit, despite some British expectations to the contrary. On the subject of UK perceptions, it was suggested that the expectations of some in the UK government and Brexit supporters – that the UK will continue to have an à la carte relationship with the EU as it does now as a member, or that the UK will continue to have a seat at the EU table after Brexit – are misguided and do not tally with where the UK-EU relationship is heading.

The uncertainty around what Brexit will mean in practice is also a major concern for communities in the Highlands and Islands, the panel noted. Funding from the EU for higher education, business and civil society over the years, under cohesion and regional development programmes, has catalysed significant growth in the region. The free movement of people within the EU is also seen as invaluable to the area. For remote and island communities in Scotland in particular, EU citizens coming to live and work in those communities have been essential to sustaining and growing them.

The panel underlined the deep concerns held by many that the levels of EU development funding will not be the same and could decrease under replacement UK programmes after Brexit. A further concern is that the priorities for the funding might not be the same, and instead privilege economic growth over social or community goals. No details on replacement policies have as yet been announced, and this absence of clarity was cited as a further worry – particularly as time is running short. An additional anxiety has been over EU migration, with some EU citizens already beginning to question whether to move to Scotland as a result of the Brexit environment. The value of EU collaboration and partnerships is also very high, it was remarked: efforts are being made to maintain as many of those relationships as possible. It was noted that, as an example, Scotland leads Europe in marine energy research, though it is unclear how that might change with Brexit.

The politics in Scotland around Brexit have been made more complicated by competing objectives and interests concerning devolution and independence. It was  suggested that the SNP has been cautious both on Brexit and independence since the 2017 general election, in which it lost 21 of its Westminster seats. Nicola Sturgeon’s request for another independence referendum last year has been put on hold, but more announcements on a potential timeline to another independence referendum are expected in the autumn. Other parties in Scotland also have difficulties around Brexit. Scottish Labour, under leader Richard Leonard, currently backs UK Labour’s ‘jobs first’ Brexit, despite confusion over what that means in reality. The Scottish Conservatives have fallen in line with the UK government’s hard Brexit approach, despite leader Ruth Davidson being one of the most significant ‘remain’ advocates. The political conflict around Brexit, devolution and independence, it was noted, looks sets to continue for some time.

Questions and Discussion with the Audience

The questions from the audience were varied and reflected clear public interest in the Brexit debate. The subjects of a further EU referendum, the potential reversal of Brexit and related implications were raised. On the issue of another referendum, the panel discussed the possible focus of another vote – whether on the Brexit withdrawal deal, in the case of no deal, or simply on continued EU membership outright. It was suggested that political leanings, in the Conservative and Labour parties, in favour of Brexit, the complexity of the issues and public fatigue with constitutional decisions could count against another referendum. However, several factors were also cited that could bode well for such a vote – including sizeable support for ‘remain’, the continued presence of pro-EU campaign groups, major difficulties in the Brexit process and the fact that Brexit has not yet happened.

The panel suggested that either another EU referendum or a general election and change of government would be necessary to see a reversal of Brexit. In particular, such a scenario would require a change in position of the Labour party to a more pro-EU membership stance. It was pointed out that the EU27 would need to be convinced that renewed UK support for EU membership was sustainable. In a second referendum, a strong majority in favour of the EU on a high voter turnout would be a clear signal. While the legal aspects of withdrawing Article 50 notification are disputed (but it is clear it can be withdrawn if the EU28 all agree including the UK), on a political level the EU27 may well seek a substantial concession from the UK to stay in the EU, such as giving up the UK rebate or signing up to ‘ever closer union’.

The question was raised of how businesses can get greater clarity on arrangements after Brexit and address the many concerns they have about EU withdrawal. It was said that, despite the apparent reluctance of enterprise to be seen as engaging in politics, it was incumbent upon businesses to speak out about the practical downsides and consequences they see from Brexit. That communication has been a missing part of the debate – and it is the only way to make that reality clear to the public and pressure politicians into facing the difficult questions which Brexit and the UK government’s approach to Brexit have created.

Another question concerned whether Brexit in fact brought prospects or opportunities for the UK externally in trade, investment and foreign policy. The panel was sceptical of the existence of many Brexit opportunities and noted that the UK government seemed to have very conflicting priorities on relations with Europe and the wider world. It has claimed to be a proponent of free trade, but also aims to leave the single market and customs union, and thus reduce UK access to the largest market in the world. It has set ambitions to attract top talent to the UK, but maintains numerical targets on reducing immigration and plans for the UK to no longer participate in the EU’s free movement of people. The UK could always trade with both the rest of the EU and the rest of the world – Brexit will make both more difficult for the foreseeable future.

The discussion concluded on the subject of the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit, in the face of continued uncertainty since the EU referendum nearly two years ago. Regret was expressed that the UK government had not offered clarity to EU citizens much sooner. The experience of non-EEA nationals with the current UK immigration system was also raised as not inspiring confidence for the treatment of EU citizens. The panel commented that citizens’ rights were a high priority for the EU and the stated number one priority of the European Parliament in particular, which will have a vote on the Brexit deal. At the EU’s insistence, the withdrawal agreement includes guarantees on the rights and procedures for EU citizens resident in the UK, and it is an area to which the EU will continue to pay close attention. Ultimately, however, these legacy issues of Brexit will last for decades to come.

The panel discussion at the Scottish Association for Marine Science is pictured above