The Scottish Government’s Brexit Options

The Scottish Government have unveiled proposals to protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU, specifically Scotland’s continued place in the single market. Their document, Scotland’s Place in Europe, was presented as the first serious governmental proposal of its kind six months on from June’s vote, and was aimed squarely at the UK Government.

At the press conference launching the paper, as well as the document itself, the assuaging tone from the Scottish Government was notable – there was talk of a “shared endeavour”, “compromise”, “common ground”, “good faith” and efforts to “build consensus”. It was also stressed that the proposals would be of interest, and would benefit, the rest of the UK.

The Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly noted her commitment to engage with the devolved administrations in the Brexit process, including at her symbolic first visit to meet Scotland’s First Minister after assuming office, as well as later stating that it was “imperative that the devolved administrations play their part in making it work.”

Nicola Sturgeon’s statement today and her careful discourse emphasising compromise has now placed the ball firmly in the court of the UK Government.

Scotland’s Place in Europe: Main Points
There are three main components to the Scottish Government’s plan which seek to mitigate the impact of Brexit: (1.) The UK should remain in the single market as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) and within the EU Customs Union; (2.) If not, Scotland should have a bespoke deal to remain in the single market; and (3.) The powers of the Scottish Parliament should be revisited and enhanced.

The first strand seeks to influence the overall UK position so that the UK remains part of the single market. The First Minister argued that it would not be democratically unjustifiable to do so, yet such a scenario appears unlikely. After all, Brexit means Brexit…

The second strand presents “differentiated solutions” for Scotland, with the Scottish Government favouring a Norway-style arrangement to maintain Scotland’s place within the single market as a member of the EEA, even if the UK opts for a hard Brexit. The paper suggests that the UK sponsors Scottish membership of the European Free Trade Association as a route into the EEA, or a direct Scottish association with the EEA. Noting various territorial exemptions, the Scottish Government’s journey to its preferred model stopped off at various Scandinavian destinations along the way, including Greenland, Svalbard and the Faroe Islands…

The final strand contends that there has to be a fundamental reconsideration of the powers of Holyrood, encompassing three broad categories of powers: (a) powers which will be transferred from Brussels to the UK but fall under devolved competence – such as fishing and farming – must remain the preserve of Holyrood; (b) powers which are not currently within devolved competence, such as employment law, should be transferred in order to protect key rights; and (c) powers to support the differentiated solutions, such as over immigration, should be devolved in order to meet the requirements of single market membership.

Taken in their totality, the key areas considered for further devolution by the Scottish Government’s plan don’t actually leave many reserved areas at all.

If not this plan, what plan?
As expected, Ruth Davidson gave the report short shrift when responding to the First Minister’s statement, accusing the Scottish Government of using Brexit to further their aims of independence. However, Nicola Sturgeon threw down the gauntlet to the more progressive and pro-European Scottish Labour and the Lib Dems: “if not this plan, what plan?”

Scotland’s opposition parties will have to carefully consider their response to the report but challenges also remain for the Scottish Government.

Indeed, just prior to the paper’s launch, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform, a member of the Scottish Government’s Standing Council on Europe, highlighted that it would be “extremely difficult” to see how the First Minister’s plans were legally, politically or technically feasible. He is now the third member of the Council to express doubts about the Scottish Government’s approach.

Balancing Spinning Plates
And of course, significant challenges remain for the UK Government in reconciling the various demands at home – be it the electorate, those opposed to their approach and the views of the devolved administrations – as well those in Europe.

The devolved administrations, including Scotland, are united in their determination to exert some influence over the UK Government in the Brexit negotiations and ensure a ‘soft’ Brexit. The whole Brexit process will be fraught with uncertainty, yet the one thing that we can be sure of is that the likelihood of all the devolved administrations being satisfied with the final outcome is minute. The intergovernmental relations of the UK will be an important aspect of the Brexit negotiations and may ultimately impact on the future politics of the UK, particularly as the Scottish Government are currently consulting on a Draft Referendum Bill.

Alongside the challenge of securing the best deal for the UK from its exit from the EU, the delicate territorial politics of these islands is yet another tricky spinning plate for Theresa May to try and balance.