2018 Presents Sobering Realities

The post-Hogmanay atmosphere is always sobering, and never more than this year when the party may be over for some many people in so many ways. During 2017, three great political experiments - Brexit, the Trump Presidency and the Catalonian independence project - failed to progress beyond the damage limitation stage into the payoffs their proponents expected. In Scotland, the snap UK election was a piece of bad luck for the SNP and accelerated the comeback of Scottish Conservatives and Labour. Having finally marched the Scottish Parliament up the referendum hill on 13 March, Nicola Sturgeon felt no alternative to marching it back down on 27 June. 
 
Pro-independence forces throughout Europe then had to endure the Catalan referendum and election. It was shocking that a political act, even if found ultra vires by the courts, could attract criminal penalties and engage a discourse of treason. The Catalans’ symbolic declaration of independence had no practical effect and showed that sub-state secessionist movements can expect no comfort from the EU. The two polls showed the independence-leaning segment of the electorate to be short of, but tantalisingly close to, a majority – uncannily similar to Scotland. 
 
2017 had a sting in the tail for Brexit when the Commission’s draft supplementary negotiating directives of 20 December suggested that transitional arrangements ‘should not last beyond 31 December 2020’ (Com (2017)830 Annex para 21). Hitherto the timing on that period, when the UK would contribute and largely act as if it were still a member state, had seemed to be a UK-driven variable. Philip Hammond had suggested a period as long as three years to conclude before the next UK election in May 2022. The official line was ‘about two years’ and the dream of the Brexiteers that the new arrangements could be wrapped up before the end of 2020 seemed optimistic. 
 
The joint report of 8 December was silent on the financial basis of a continued transition beyond 31 December 2020, but the assumption had been that it would be welcome to the EU27, both politically and in terms of the inflow of money. Now we see that ‘freedom day’ can cut both ways. Faced with the need to make progress on the non-Brexit parts of its agenda, and to focus member states on the new medium-term budget starting in January 2021, the Commission is prepared to put political pressure on the UK to finalise its long-term relationship with the EU without delay. In this position of weakness, and having run down its bureaucratic capability to handle the myriad of issues in play on customs, regulation and standards, time may well be called on the breezy self-confidence of David Davis and Boris Johnson.
 
The EU’s negotiating position is that they already have a range of institutional mechanisms to accommodate countries who want to be associated but not be members. It is for the UK to choose which one they want; the UK cannot cherry-pick desirable features of all of them. Michel Barnier illustrated this graphically in his slide of 15 December. 
 
Barnier Graphic
 
Institutional weight favours the EU side; they are bigger economically and not the demandeur politically. None of this is to say that mutually tolerable trade arrangements cannot be reached or that a train crash cannot be avoided; it is simply to note that UK is poorly placed to avoid through negotiating skills a net disbenefit to economic growth after it ceases to be a member state. 
 
Within Britain and Ireland, the non-English jurisdictions are also a source of pressure. Scotland and Wales have common cause on the use of the EU Withdrawal Bill to grab devolution-related powers by Westminster. Poor drafting in the Bill has confused the unimpeded implementation of Brexit with the shifting of legal protocols around devolution in favour of giving the UK level whatever discretion it finds convenient. Progress on Northern Ireland looks set to be slow on both technical and political fronts, with many covert agendas on all sides.
 
Northern Ireland is still potentially the model for a soft land border between the UK and an independent EU-member Scotland. But at the moment a Catalan-style loss of psychological energy is evident. Nicola Sturgeon may still have in mind a narrative leading to a referendum in 2019/20 on junking the UK in favour of the EU. But to work this probably needed to have been pursued more consistently than she has done. A natural sensitivity to Eurosceptic forces in her own party, especially in the North East, has combined with a move towards the UK position that the post-Brexit arrangements must be clear before independence can properly be appraised by the electorate.  
 
If there is no second referendum until after the 2021 Holyrood elections – the SNP’s pre-Brexit position - something must be said about it in the 2021 SNP manifesto. The SNP will already be under pressure for anything that is defective or disappointing after their 14 years in office. As in 2007 (and in the German elections of 2017) there may well not be a clear outcome. The formation of a coalition or minority government will be similarly complex, especially if the disavowal of a referendum in 2021-26 is the deal-making issue.  The SNP’s strategists need to appraise where they are likely to be on the morning of Friday 7 May 2021 and what they can do to influence it as long as the tools of government are still in their hands. 

Comments policy

All comments posted on the site via Disqus are automatically published. Additionally comments are sent to moderators for checking and removal if necessary. We encourage open debate and real time commenting on the website. The Centre on Constitutional Change cannot be held responsible for any content posted by users. Any complaints about comments on the site should be sent to info@centreonconstitutionalchange.ac.uk

Richard Parry's picture
post by Richard Parry
University of Edinburgh
5th January 2018

Latest blogs

  • 19th February 2019

    Over the course of the UK’s preparations for withdrawing from the EU, the issue of the UK’s own internal market has emerged as an issue of concern, and one that has the potentially significant consequences for devolution. Dr Jo Hunt of Cardiff University examines the implications.

  • 12th February 2019

    CCC Fellow Professor Daniel Wincott of Cardiff University examines how Brexit processes have already reshaped territorial politics in the UK and changed its territorial constitution.

  • 7th February 2019

    The future of agriculture policy across the United Kingdom after Brexit is uncertain and risky, according to a new paper by Professor Michael Keating of the Centre on Constitutional Change. Reforms of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy over recent years have shifted the emphasis from farming to the broader concept of rural policy. As member states have gained more discretion in applying policy, the nations of the UK have also diverged, according to local conditions and preferences.

  • 4th February 2019

    In our latest report for the "Repatriation of Competences: Implications for Devolution" project, Professor Nicola McEwen and Dr Alexandra Remond examine how, in the longer term, Brexit poses significant risks for the climate and energy ambitions of the devolved nations. These include the loss of European Structural and Investment Funds targeted at climate and low carbon energy policies, from which the devolved territories have benefited disproportionately. European Investment Bank loan funding, which has financed high risk renewables projects, especially in Scotland, may also no longer be as accessible, while future access to research and innovation funding remains uncertain. The removal of the EU policy framework, which has incentivised the low carbon ambitions of the devolved nations may also result in lost opportunities.

  • 1st February 2019

    The outcome of the various Commons votes this week left certain only that the Government would either secure an amended deal and put it to a meaningful vote on Wednesday 13 February, or in the overwhelmingly likely absence of this make a further statement that day and table another amendable motion for the following day, the Groundhog Day that may lead to a ‘St Valentine’s Day Massacre’ for one side or the other. Richard Parry assesses the further two-week pause in parliamentary action on Brexit

Read More Posts