IT seems trite to say it, but protecting Scotland’s, and the UK’s, interests as Brexit rolls forward is not a simple exercise. Brexit is complicated and the solutions and processes to fix it will be complicated, not least because we have seen so little clarity from the UK Government on what it wants to achieve. It is the time for those of us who can work together to do so across parties and borders to find solutions.
First published in The Herald Agenda, 7 February 2017
From “hard” or “soft” to “clean” or “cliff” through to”red, white and blue” Brexit, journalists and politicians have tried in vain to find terminology that explains what is going to happen. Anyone attempting to pretend it is simple and straightforward is either uninformed or trying to mislead.
The four-dimensional challenge set by the Brexit vote was to find a solution that measured up to what the UK majority want (assuming a consensus can be found) while taking into account the specific political and economic circumstances in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar and causing as little damage as possible to our economies and reputational damage to our place in the world.
The good news is the EU is good at finding solutions. The bad is that the Prime Minister, in thrall to the extremists in her ranks, seems disinclined to explore them lest she be accused of compromise or weakness. There is still time, even if or when Article 50 is triggered.
As members of the Standing Council on Europe who advised the First Minister, we have co-authored an analysis of a range of places across the EU’s territory. These examples have exactly such constitutional exceptions as we need to explore to find answers to our conundrums. We explicitly have not proposed any particular model as an option for Scotland’s future but instead we offer this as evidence that solutions can be found if there is a will to find them.
The assertion that “we can do it better” outside the single market is not grounded in reality and we should delay while we properly consider the implications of leaving. There has been woefully inadequate preparation for the scale of the task ahead. Even the creation of our own World Trade Organisation (WTO) schedules will be a long process, fraught with difficulty: practical, logistical and political. There is no simple “reverting to WTO status”.
Negotiating our own deals is not yet even practically possible as we do not know what terms we can offer. First, we need to deal with Article 50, then conclude a trade deal with the EU and then negotiations with the 63 countries the EU has deals with to replicate or renegotiate their terms. Only then can we turn to the 160 or so countries in the WTO to complete our new, post-Brexit, schedules. Only once we have those schedules can discussions start on such new deals as may be possible.
Leaving the single market is neither easy nor painless and the UK Government needs urgently to seriously explore other options. There are plenty of them.
There is also the domestic context. If the rest of the UK is to leave the single market, and we do not believe it should, keeping Scotland (potentially alongside Northern Ireland and Gibraltar) within it should be an objective of the UK Government. This is a reasonable compromise that would reflect where Scotland is politically, economically and as a society.
The EU is flexible. This is something we have made clear throughout as members of the Standing Council, and ventilate in our paper. Campione d’Italia, Büsingen am Hochrhein and Livigno are parts of the EU enclosed by the territory of Switzerland and have had arrangements put in place to ensure they can operate as distinct economies. The Faroe Islands, Aland Islands and Heligoland are just some of the territories with some form of variable geometry within Europe, again to respect their unique geographic and political circumstances. San Marino, Svalbard, the UK sovereign bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia give more examples. The list goes on and that is before we go beyond the immediate area of the continent of Europe.
Closer to home, we already see variable geometry in action in the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. Some 60 territories and nations have some sort of flexible relationship with the rest of Europe and there are plenty of differences across the member states. There is no one-size-fits-all; quite the opposite.
None provides a direct template for Scotland, the UK, nor anywhere else but they do illustrate the potential flexibility that exists and that can be deployed to find answers that work. The EU can and does provide flexible solutions. Any solution will be complex, awkward even, and will need serious political heft behind it. But solutions are possible. We need to see a greater common political will to find them. Let’s not rush in until we have.