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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Scotland and Brexit

If there is one post-Brexit growth area, it is conferences on how to deal with it! The Centre on Constitutional Change at least does it better than most, and they gathered together a good range of speakers in Edinburgh today.

The conference started with a political panel. Parties set out their position, as far as they good. Phrases like 'the best possible deal' are pretty meaningless when we have no clear idea what the UK's negotiating strategy is - or even if the cabinet could ever agree on one. There was a recognition by most of the politicians that these negotiations will be difficult, with no appetite in Europe for some sort of sweetheart deal. The only common ground is that it isn't going to be quick and we have to keep an eye on elections in Europe, not least in Germany.

There was a helpful focus on what the repatriated powers mean for Scotland. This included a discussion on how repatriated EU funds are allocated. If it's just by Barnett, Scotland could lose out. Also some consideration of the opportunities as well as the threat, recognising that the EU is not a perfect institution as its response to the financial crash and the refugee crisis has shown.

The academic contributions started with Laura Cram who talked about Brexit from an EU perspective. She started with the scary fact that the most googled phrase the day after the referendum was - 'what is the EU?'. She reminded us that the other countries of the EU have their own interests and electorates. While there may be no wish for a punitive approach - there is a concern about contagion and don't forget those countries outside the EU who have relationships with the EU.

David Bell set out the stark problem of the trade off between free trade and free movement. There will be different positions in Europe on these issues. For example, remittances from migrant labour are important to East European countries and trade is more important for countries closest to each other. A free trade deal with Australia isn't a substitute for the EU! The EU is not particularly happy with the Norway and especially the Swiss deal. Interestingly, CETA has a sub-state arrangement for Quebec. Trade deals are generally struggling at present, as the debate over TTIP shows.

Christina Boswell believes some kind of trade off may be possible between free trade and free movement. There are precedents for caps and temporary stops on migration. The stumbling block is political as far as the UK voters are concerned, or 'cake and eat it' from the EU perspective. If hard Brexit the UK then has to design a migration system. She reminded us that the UK government has such controls in place for non-EU migration and has failed to meet their own targets. Not least because of the business pressures for immigration. Paradoxically leaving the EU could damage the economy and that is the most effective way of reducing immigration! While it would be legally possible to deport EU citizens who have permanent resident status in the UK, it would be very difficult politically and practically. The U.K. Government stance is more about avoiding an immigration pull effect before Brexit happens.

Michael Keating explored the possibilities for Scotland remaining in the EU. In short, that's a no. Almost nobody wants a hard border with rUK, the consequence of most options. There are a number of ways that Scotland can continue to have a loser networked relationship - taking more of an EU than UK line on issues like environmental regulation, universities and the social contract. Scotland's approach to social and economic policy is arguably closer to the EU than many in the cabinet, who may want to pursue a race to the bottom offshore model.

David Heald warned that we may still get the punishment budget in the Autumn Statement because right could use Brexit as the latest excuse to reduce the size of the state. On the other hand, economic pressures could drive some easing of austerity. Scottish farm incomes are more dependent on EU subsidies than rUK and therefore we should focus on how money is allocated. Similarly, with university research funding. There are also fiscal opportunities. For example, outwith the EU, Scotland could have different VAT rates and goods and services in scope. Brexit is also happening at the worst time for Scotland, before the new devolved financial powers have settled down.

Alan Page outlined the range of constitutional implications. Brexit has no direct impact on powers of Scottish Parliament, the law remains the same. The difference is that parliament will be able to legislate on the EU competencies, not just implement Directives. However, most of these are reserved. He questioned how much divergence there will be, given international commitments in areas like the environment. Divergence and the need for an LCM gives an opportunity for a renegotiation of devolved powers. He also pointed to the loss of EU judicial oversight. A good example is the challenge to minimum price of alcohol. 

Ailsa Henderson spoke about people's attitude to risk. People more tolerant to risk voted to leave the EU. They believe there is less risk to the economy than to immigration. Polling shows that Scots are as Eurosceptic as the rest of the UK, they just draw different conclusions on Brexit - more critical friends. Opportunities for engagement is one way to get over losers significant loss of satisfaction over the process of democracy. 

Finally, Nicola McEwen focused on implications for further devolution. For example, the First Minister has talked about maintaining protections in employment law and Scotland's need for immigration - both of which are largely reserved. Even external relations could be on the agenda. Belgium has provisions for devolved areas to have limited competencies in foreign affairs. Another option is some form of co-decision making.

As always when discussing Brexit we are left with more questions than answers. However, this conference flagged up some new issues for me and questions are at least a start towards sorting out the mess we are in.

P.S. If you want more on Scotland and Brexit, Holyrood Magazine are running a series of short briefings. I'm speaking at the one on health this Thursday.


  1. I know this is outwith the scope of your post - so my apologies in advance...

    However if the consensus is that a hard border with rUK would be required if Scotland remained in the EU, just how secure are the assertions that there will be no hard border between NI and Eire?

  2. Not my area of expertise, but I understand there are some differences that might make it possible. However, speaking to colleagues in NI, this remains a big concern for them.