The UK Government has chosen to blithely ignore the end of June deadline for requesting an extension of the Brexit transition period. So time is now short to get to a basic EU-UK deal by October or, the alternative, a no deal outcome at the end of the year.
Face to face talks are taking place in Brussels this week for the first time since lockdown – having stumbled on unsuccessfully through video talks until now. The mood music is not great. Last week, the UK’s chief negotiator castigated the EU on Twitter for “unrealistic positions” that “will have to change” while re-stating the UK’s ideological positioning on its sovereignty.
Covid-19 is, of course, the centre of political and public attention. But that doesn’t mean there is public support for the type of hard Brexit that Boris Johnson and his Brexiters want. In fact, a recent Kantar poll found 56% of UK voters now back remaining in the EU. But the UK has left the EU, so “remain” is not possible – only a rather unlikely re-join option (that several EU member states might queue up to veto).
But, in Scotland, the re-join option is not so unlikely nor absent from debate. Independence in the European Union is the Scottish Government’s clear, long-standing position. Any independent European state can indeed apply to join the EU – and despite plenty of hoops to jump through, there is, for now, plenty of goodwill in EU capitals towards Scotland.
Meanwhile, in London, Keir Starmer is playing a cautious game on the EU-UK talks – hanging back, unlike the other opposition parties, from calling for a two-year extension of transition. Doubtless, Starmer will be ready to critique any basic free trade deal that emerges. But he is playing a long game, and any clear position on Labour’s preferred EU-UK deal is not obviously in the offing.
In contrast, the Scottish Government’s Brexit policies are many and varied – from independence in the EU to keeping the whole UK in the EU’s customs union and single market, or keeping Scotland alone in the single market, or devolving migration policy to enable something akin to free movement of people.
But, with deliberate continuity from Theresa May to Boris Johnson, the UK Government has chosen not to engage in any serious way with the devolved administrations. May and Johnson never tried to mend the Brexit divide across the UK’s four nations – their focus was solely on their core voters and their own backbenchers.
So the Brexit fragmentation of the UK has deepened over the last four years, not least since Brexit day on January 31. Scotland not only voted Remain, together with Northern Ireland, four years ago, but the European debate here remains substantively different too.
And it’s a debate that is intimately intertwined with the independence debate. A recent poll put support for independence at 54% – others have shown a smaller majority or a 50:50 split. One factor behind the increase in support for independence is previously pro-UK, Remain voters switching to Yes. While the Conservatives drive Brexit forward and Labour has accepted it, in Scotland, the SNP’s option of re-joining the EU will stay a core part of political debate and dynamics.
This fundamental difference in English and Scottish political debates is there too in the more specific aspects of the EU-UK talks. The UK Government continues to reject EU demands for a level-playing field to ensure neither side undercuts the other on environmental and labour standards or state aids. Johnson’s agreement, in last autumn’s EU-UK political declaration, to negotiate a level-playing field has been discarded by this most ideological of governments.
But the Scottish Government wants its own partial level-playing field in devolved areas, including replicating EU environmental standards as far as possible. How that will play out in the context of other UK trade deals or in UK-devolved politics is an open question.
The EU-UK talks are also blocked over fisheries, over judicial and police co-operation, and on overall governance and dispute settlement. Any hints of progress on the technical side in the talks are soon halted by new political pronouncements from London. And consultation between UK and Scottish governments remains non-existent beyond some granular technical discussions between officials.
Yet, despite the UK bluster, a deal is perhaps slightly more likely than a no deal outcome. If London can portray a major compromise on its side, with a small shift by Brussels, as EU capitulation, then late October might see a deal – allowing time for the European parliament to ratify it.
But a deal will be thin and damaging. It will re-establish customs and regulatory barriers to trade; it will hit the services sector particularly hard. It will slow growth and reduce investment compared to staying closer to the EU. And a no deal outcome will create more chaos and a harder economic hit – albeit with the withdrawal agreement still in place, so EU citizens’ settled status and the special deal for Northern Ireland will remain.
A UK publicity campaign is due in July – pushing individuals and organisations to prepare for the end of transition. But such preparations cannot realistically be done amidst the economic damage and uncertainty from the Covid-19 crisis, and without knowing if there will be a deal or what it will look like.
The double damage from the Covid crisis and a hard Brexit plus premature end of transition will not go unnoticed in Scotland. The SNP faces its own challenges in the months ahead, as the fall-out from the Salmond saga continues. And currently favourable polls for the Holyrood elections next May could shift in our deeply unpredictable Covid era.
But the UK, albeit with a special deal for Northern Ireland, is set for a hard divorce from the EU. In Scotland, the debate over having that divorce imposed on it will continue. The EU debate may be muted in England in the coming years. But in contrast, in Scotland, the European debate is set to stay a central part of the core constitutional debate.
Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.