Revoking Article 50 is now our only real hope

I WAS lucky enough to be able to take some time off over the holidays. I uninstalled Twitter, only checked my email once a day and spent the time with family and friends. After a bit of a break, I would love to say that I’m feeling upbeat, but I’ll confess my main feeling when I contemplate 2019 is one of a deep foreboding. We’re going to have to support each other even more than usual because, on matters of Brexit, I think things are going to need to get worse before they get better.

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First published in The National, 7 January 2019

I worry that the absurd reaction to the attempts by what is in the grand scheme of things a handful of desperate and abused people to cross the English Channel is a taste of what is to come in the next few months – breathless reportage of events and process, all the while ignoring the bigger and more pressing picture. Emotions and drama instead of rational discussion. I’ve said before in these pages that my job is to stop Brexit. If I can’t do that my job is to ensure as close a relationship with the EU, for Scotland, and if it comes to it, the UK as well.

There is no good news for independence in Brexit. The extent to which the EU aspects underpinned so many fundamental parts of our independence proposition in 2014 was crucial, and, evidently, lost on many.

I firmly believe independence in Europe is Scotland’s best future – indeed Brexit has shown just how dysfunctional and washed up the UK really is, but we will become independent not in an abstract vacuum but within a British Isles, continental and global framework of complex and finely balanced relationships. We’ll only ever have one land border, and both sides of the border at Carlisle remaining within the EU single market and customs union makes independence, for now, easier. Until we see where the UK ends up, there are questions about independence we can’t answer. For now.

So, stopping Brexit on March 29 is in our best interests. There are three ways this can be done. Be in no doubt, unless something else happens, by automatic expiry of time the UK will leave the EU in a few short months. This is set in Article 50 and now also in domestic UK legislation. This means that EU law stops – it does not somehow roll on – it stops on March 29.

I’ve heard various MPs at Westminster who really should know better say that a no-deal Brexit cannot happen because there isn’t a majority in the House of Commons for it. There wasn’t a majority (had a poll been taken) of passengers on the Titanic who wanted to hit the iceberg either, but the iceberg didn’t care. Unless one of the game-playing chancers in what passes in name only for the UK Government wises up and grabs the tiller to change course, Brexit will happen.

The first possibility isn’t a stop, but a delay. The UK and EU could agree to delay exit day, as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.

But this would be under May’s lamentable deal, backstop and all.

I detect zero appetite in Brussels or anywhere else to reopen the negotiations, and what willingness there was to find a new form of words has evaporated because of the inept way May went about the last EU summit meeting. So agreeing to delay the exit date would allow more time for planning the “what comes next after exit” part of the story, but we’re still negotiating from outside – we will have left.

The second possibility is for EU and UK to agree to extend the Article 50 period itself, with no Withdrawal Agreement because everyone admits that two years was just too short a period – let’s keep talking and scratch March 29 until we have a properly worked out agreement. I just don’t see how, or indeed why, the EU would agree to this without a good reason, such as a further referendum or a General Election, or (my most likely scenario) the EU steps in to impose this in the face of a complete collapse in the UK. A wrinkle to this would be the European Parliament elections scheduled for May, and we would need a proper answer on how we would deal with them.

The final possibility is the simplest, cleanest and my preferred outcome. Stop the clock, by which I mean stop the clock, not pause it. Article 50 can be revoked, unilaterally, by the UK. The terms of our current EU membership roll on. This can be done until the Withdrawal Agreement is signed and ratified, so we have time, given it has not, as yet, been agreed at Westminster. Yes, revoking Article 50 would be messy. Yes, some people would be disappointed. We will not be able to pretend the last two years never happened, there would need to be a step shift in how we “do Europe”.

But Brexit is going to disappoint whatever happens, because the promises made to leave voters will not be fulfilled, and Remain voters don’t want it anyway. We can deal with that disappointment within a secure and stable legal and economic framework, or we can deal with the disappointment while free-falling towards the rocks trying to knit a parachute.

I’ve lost count of how many flow charts my team and I have done in the last months, each more convoluted than the last. Every option is inelegant. Every way we turn there will be practical difficulties. But Scotland voted to remain, and that is my instruction.