Brexit as the Deadline Looms: German and Scottish Views

31 October 2018
Event Partner

© 2018 SCER

The Scottish Centre on European Relations, in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation UK and Ireland, organised a high-level Scottish-German policy roundtable in October 2018 at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Bringing together senior figures from the policy world (politicians, officials, academics, think tank experts, diplomats, media, NGO representatives and others), the off-the-record roundtable was focused on the theme of Brexit as the Deadline Looms: German and Scottish Views. The roundtable was followed by a public event entitled Brexit and the Countdown to Deal or No-Deal: German and Scottish Views. This report summarises the points raised in the discussions.

Brexit Debate in the UK, Scotland and Germany

With the Brexit process now in its endgame, the time remaining to conclude the UK’s withdrawal agreement is short. Various reports suggest that 90-95% of the agreement has been completed. Northern Ireland of course is the main unresolved issue. The ‘governance’ of the withdrawal agreement – meaning how its terms will be implemented and enforced – has also been an area of disagreement. In particular, the UK government has sought to limit the role of the Court of Justice of the EU. It is possible that the UK has made concessions in this area during the extensive negotiations of recent weeks, but it is currently unclear what those concessions might be.

Overall, the lack of clarity at this late stage on the outcome of the negotiations is cause for concern for many in Scotland, the UK and Germany. While the UK parliament has recently been occupied by the UK’s annual budget, attention has now refocused on Brexit. It remains difficult to see how a majority could be found in the House of Commons for any particular form of Brexit. One of the latest proposals, ‘Norway for Now’ – participating in the European Economic Area for several years, before transitioning to a Canada-style Free Trade Agreement – is unlikely to find the necessary backing in the Commons. However, it is finely balanced whether Theresa May can get any deal through the House of Commons or not – taking the UK in two very different directions, depending which is the eventual outcome: a ratified deal or a rejected deal (or no deal).

Public support for a ‘People’s Vote’ following the conclusion of the withdrawal negotiations has continued to build in Scotland and across the UK. In practical terms, the most likely way to achieve a further referendum is by passing an amendment to the eventual ‘meaningful vote’ legislation which the Commons will consider if a withdrawal agreement is concluded. Politically, a ‘People’s Vote’ could most likely come about through the UK parliament rejecting the withdrawal agreement – though this outcome could lead instead to a UK general election. It is unclear how the EU27 would respond in such circumstances, but extending the Article 50 negotiating period should not be ruled out.

Scotland voted decisively to remain in the EU (62% to 38%) in the 2016 referendum. Scottish public opinion has continued to show substantial majority support for remain. The debate on a ‘People’s Vote’ however has to some extent been connected with the debate on a further independence referendum, complicating matters. Nevertheless, the Scottish National Party (SNP), Scottish Greens and Scottish Liberal Democrats all now formally back the ‘People’s Vote’ option.

The implications of Brexit for the powers of the Scottish parliament and the overall devolution settlement have also been a feature of political discussion and concern. The case brought by a cross-party group of Scottish politicians to the Court of Session on the potential of a unilateral revocation of the Article 50 notice – which has been referred to the CJEU and granted a fast-track process – could inform the wider UK Brexit debate given the hearing is on the 27th November.

In Germany, political attention has focused on the recent state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, where both the CDU/CSU and SPD have seen their vote share decline to new lows. Chancellor Angela Merkel has also recently announced that she will not stand for re-election as chair of her party and will stand down as chancellor in 2021. However, these developments are unlikely to have a significant impact on the German government’s approach to Brexit. All mainstream parties in Germany share a similar point of view – that the priorities are to protect the single market and to maintain the unity of the EU27. Depending on Merkel’s eventual successor, Germany’s views on the eventual EU-UK relationship could shift somewhat, but that will not impact the negotiations in the near term.

Implications of Brexit for Future Relations

At the moment, the UK and Germany share joint membership of the EU. It will be impossible to replace all aspects of that relationship if the UK leaves the EU, even taking into account bilateral cooperation, the future EU-UK relationship and continued cooperation in other multilateral institutions in which the UK will remain a member, such as NATO. Home affairs are an important area where the UK and the EU27 have stated their desire to continue working together as much as possible. The German government is seeking a robust EU-UK security partnership after Brexit, which will encompass aspects of both internal and external security.

The personal connections between Scotland, the UK and Germany are also significant, and will be impacted on by Brexit. It has been estimated that around 300,000 German citizens currently live in the UK and that around 100,000 UK citizens live in Germany. The German government’s detailed planning for Brexit has already included making provision to enable those UK citizens to continue with their existing employment and other rights in Germany. The question of the movement of EU citizens is particularly important to Scotland, as a nation whose projected population growth for the next two decades is almost entirely dependent on continued inward migration. The Scottish government continues to support the free movement of people as part of the European Union, just as it supports continued EU membership.

The future of politics in the UK, Germany and Scotland each has their different challenges. The current state of British politics is fractious, and it is difficult to see a rapid recovery from the deep fault lines over Europe which cross traditional political boundaries.  In Germany, Brexit is only one issue among many and it is not the priority issue. However, increasing euroscepticism is a concern which is largely linked with public worry over external migration from outside the EU into Germany. In the German federal elections in 2017, this link between immigration and Europe was a feature of the debate. For Scotland, the issue of Brexit is having a significant impact on the on-going independence debate even if that is not particularly reflected in the polls at this point.

The dynamics of the EU will also change after Brexit, as the UK was often aligned with Germany on single market and trade issues amongst others. Europe as a whole faces common internal and external challenges – a good argument for working together in the EU. One issue in the years ahead will be how Europe can sustain its social welfare model (which has variations across states), given ageing populations, rising spending demands and reduced prospects of economic growth. At present, the EU is on a path to account for half of the world’s welfare spending, but only a fraction of global economic growth. The EU also needs to address external foreign policy challenges, such as those related to Russia and China. The UK has been an important part of EU foreign policy – Brexit will change that role as well.

Much of the Brexit discussion has focused on the four freedoms of the single market and the extent to which they can be separated when it comes to the UK’s future relationship with the EU – particularly on the free movement of people. While some discussion has considered the four freedoms to be movable scales rather than fixed certainties, the consistent position from the EU27 has been that the freedoms are indivisible. European Parliament Brexit Coordinator Guy Verhofstadt has recently proposed a future relationship model based on an Association Agreement, incorporating a Free Trade Agreement, with provisions on internal and external security, people and data. However, the fate of the withdrawal negotiations, the design of the future relationship and the prospect of no deal remain, which means there is continuing deep uncertainty even as time runs out before the 29 March.

The panel discussion at the Royal Society of Edinburgh is pictured above