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.
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.