On 24 October the plenary Joint Ministerial Committee [JMC (P)] of UK, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland leaders met for the first time in two years. The occasion for resurrecting what had become an almost moribund body was to discuss the ‘UK approach’ to Brexit promised by the Prime Minister. The outcome was to set up another joint committee on Brexit to be known as JMC (EN), chaired by David Davis. The devolveds have also been promised a direct line to the Brexit Secretary. There was the usual talk about a ‘relationship built on principles of mutual understanding and consensus and co-operation.’ Some outside commentary has also called for goodwill, about structures and regular meetings.
The real differences are not wished away so easily. The Scottish Government has a list of demands, based on Scotland’s vote to remain and on staying within the Single Market. Wales voted No but Welsh ministers are also concerned about market access and funding implications. Northern Ireland voted to remain and its ministers are divided but there is consensus on keeping an ‘open border’. Yet it is clear that neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland can be in the single market, while the rest of the UK is outside, without creating new internal borders within the United Kingdom. It also seems, from what UK ministers have been saying, that there is little scope for comprehensive and distinct Brexit packages for the nations and regions, nor for whole economic sectors.
More likely are detailed arrangements at the margins of policy, which may be both sectoral and territorial. There may be scope for variation in work permits across the UK, for the detail of fisheries management or in higher education. There will have to be a new financial settlement to deal repatriated EU expenditures. For this to work, the devolveds would need to follow the negotiations in detail rather than just laying out general principles. This implies more of an insider role than the UK Government appears to be contemplating through the new JMC mechanism. It is also a matter of political weight – pieties about cooperation and goodwill are not enough. It is still not clear how the new machinery will meet these needs.
Before the end of the year, the Scottish Government will publish its own priorities for Brexit. When Article 50 is published, it seems the UK Government will do the same. Only will we see how large is the gap that the new mechanisms have to bridge.