Richard Parry considers the nature of the Brexit vision outlined by Theresa May on 17 January 2017 and the implications for Scotland.
Over the years the EU has developed institutions to accommodate countries in Europe that want a close and structured relationship with it but are politically unable, or are not yet ready, to accept membership. The European Economic Area, arrangements with Switzerland, the customs union, and transitions for applicant countries offer a range of models on the shelf. In her speech Theresa May said in effect that she was not interested in them. She wants bespoke arrangements for the UK that are subordinate to one aim only – to leave the EU cleanly and definitively. To be half out would be to be trapped in purgatory (or maybe, for a vicar’s daughter, ‘limbo’ would be more accurate theologically). The message is: get us out of jail – we’ve been just visiting for 40 years.
This makes the UK’ so-called ‘negotiating position’ very weak, as the two years Article 50 notice will in effect be a process of extrication, involving great complexity just to ensure that commercial transactions will not slow up on exit day. 27 countries will have interests to pursue against the UK. Money will be demanded for the medium-term EU budget. The Commission will be very careful to resist any arrangements that let the UK achieve its 1950s aim of European free trade without the totality of the EU project.
May’s internationalist rhetoric in London and Davos this week has gained her a good press and bought her time, but it seems fundamentally unrealistic. Does leaving the EU actually promote trade, growth and a rule-based international order? Will the UK economy shrug off with ease the loss of protection against discrimination by the EU and its members? Could the UK’s disproportionate military and intelligence contribution to NATO really induce concessions on economic matters? Once revealed later this year, the EU’s position as perceived by the UK is quite likely to be characterised as May’s so-called ‘punitive’ deal inviting the trade war and race to the bottom that she threatens. The UK will be on the weaker side of an asymmetrical negotiation without any political possibility of gaining leverage by threatening to remain in the EU until satisfied.
For Nicola Sturgeon the tone and content of May’s speech will have removed much of the note of hesitant calculation evident from the SNP in recent weeks. The various soft Brexit options outlined by the Scottish Government last month have been rejected. May’s support of the Common Travel Area with Ireland is creating a model for an EU land border with the UK, one that may well be negotiated directly with the Irish Government in the absence of devolved Northern Ireland government. In terms of any stated position of the SNP it would be hard for them to find good reasons not to promote a referendum in 2018.
The main uncertainty is over the UK Government’s reaction to the introduction of a referendum bill in the Scottish Parliament. The Edinburgh Agreement of 2012 reflected the unanimous support at Holyrood for the first referendum and the wish of David Cameron to promote, not impede, a vote he felt certain to win big. This time, May would have a political basis for declining section 30 consent and possibly threatening referral to the UK Supreme Court of any Holyrood act as unlawful. At the very least she would probably delay doing anything prior to the Holyrood legislative process. Sturgeon might step back and blame UK anti-democracy – perhaps her only tactical option if she wanted to avoid IndyRef2 pre-Brexit.
But that’s unlikely. Like the subtle Scottish not guilty/not proven verdicts, losing a referendum can come in two forms. It can knock you out politically, or it can be a soft loss with possible consolation prizes coming later. The SNP found this with their electoral successes of 2015-16. Now, Sturgeon would probably mind not trying more than she would mind losing, because she has been given a principled basis for trying to save Scotland from a post-Brexit fate that is inimical to her entire political philosophy.