The board has been set for the game that will be the EU Brexit negotiations. Everyone is in the dark and there are no guaranteed outcomes. What is clear, however, is that Scotland will not be ignored by our fellow Europeans.
What everyone wants to know right now is how the dust will settle after Brexit. The fact that we are all in the dark is wreaking havoc with the economy, and this is bad news for everybody. For the time being, however, we are all going to have to get used to the uncertainty. No one saw this coming. No one in the political establishment believed it would actually happen, and there were no plans in place. As neither Westminster nor Brussels have a precedent to work from, the whole Brexit divorce will be left to the ad hoc conclusions of two years of tense negotiations.
Whatever way these negotiations play out Britain is going to suffer, and so the real task for the UK negotiators is damage limitation. London now needs to decide what exactly it wants out of these talks, play whatever cards it has close to its chest, and narrow its position down into a series of concise statements ready for the negotiating table. The obvious problem with this – the only strategy now available to the UK – is that Britain’s negotiating power in Europe has always been based on the threat that it might leave the European Union. Clearly that boat has sailed, and the UK’s normal tack has been seriously compromised.
As there are no contingency plans in place there are no guarantees as to the outcome and Britain’s continued prosperity after the end of this process. This is why Theresa May is stalling. Britain needs as much time as possible before triggering Article 50 in order to conduct a few low-level negotiations with friendly member states. She needs to cushion the fall by making provision for trade. This delaying tactic is about making alternatives for the British economy, because it is likely that once the formal Article 50 negotiations are concluded the UK will be well and truly out in the cold.
It can’t even be known that the negotiations will be a success. Such complex international talks do end in failure, and not infrequently so. Europe has far less to lose if these talks are derailed, and so May’s other major concern is ensuring that they are successful. Negotiations are most likely to go south when there is an internal disagreement within one or more of the parties over what the outcomes – best and worst case scenarios – should be, and we know that May’s cabinet is in the midst of a bitter civil war. To address this problem the Prime Minister treated the cabinet to a stern talking to on 31 August at Chequers. It was there that the PM decreed that there would be no second referendum. By hook or by crook Britain is going to be out of the EU at the end of this crisis.
All that can really be known for sure is that control over immigration is going to remain the UK’s main priority, and that the process as a whole will be made up as it goes along. David Davis has been put in charge of the British team and given – in an interesting reminder of Thermopylae – a staff of 300 civil servants to help him get the work done. Our own Scottish government will have a seat at the table, but it is unclear if this will be more than lip service to Westminster-Holyrood collaboration, and how much of a say Nicola Sturgeon will have is anyone’s guess.
Scotland’s real interest is in what will be happening at the other side of the table. Where the UK enters the arena with a singular – though deeply fractured – agenda, the European Union’s position is more complex. The EU comes at this with a number of agendas to satisfy, and quite often they are contradictory. The mandate for the EU team will be determined by the Council with the exclusion of the UK. This means that Britain will not have a say in determining its negotiation position and pretty much left in the dark when it comes to what it might expect when it all eventually kicks off.
Paul Kavanagh, in his Wee Ginger Dug article, “Friends in High Places (9 September 2016),” discussed the question of a Spanish veto arising from any Scottish bid for independence as a means of staying in Europe. He is right to be optimistic about what Spain will do. Yet he has more to say on what Scotland can expect when the negotiations begin:
Scotland’s got friends in high places, and one friend in particular who is deeply sympathetic to Scotland’s desire to remain in the EU and deeply antipathetic to the Tories’ Brexit project.
– Wee Ginger Dug
The European Parliament has named Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minster of Belgium and arch-nemesis of the Eurosceptics, to head up the talks from the EU side. The 63 year old seasoned federalist has consistently taken a hard-line against Britain, and commented recently – when Boris Johnson ditched his bid for the Tory leadership – that the “Brexiteers” were “rats fleeing a sinking ship.” Verhofstadt was part of the Euro trio that offered Cameron concessions on migration in a vain attempt to convince the UK electorate to stay, and he is certainly now going to be the least sympathetic to British demands now that it is on the way out.
Like most in the EU, Verhofstadt fears that the British departure will reinforce centrifugal forces elsewhere in the union, so he will not be keen to show too much generosity or leniency to the UK. It is in no one’s best interests that the outcome be punitive, of course, but at some level it will be Verhofstadt’s job to make sure than an example is made.
What is interesting is that he is an outspoken supporter of Scotland. He has said that it is not fair that Scotland should be taken out of the EU against the wishes of the Scottish people, and has suggested that – if independence happens before the close of the Article 50 process – that our transition from UK EU membership to Scottish EU membership will be “seamless.” Michel Barnier, the French conservative, and Didier Seeuws, a senior diplomat and former aide to Verhofstadt, will be the two wings of this EU Brexit troika.
Once again the wildcard will be Jose Manuel Barroso. Since the Scottish independence referendum he has been living it large with the US bank Goldman Sachs; a bank thought by many to be particularly toxic to European politics due to its role in the 2008 crash and the assistance it gave Greece in hiding its debt problems from the ECB for more than a decade. Barroso has been drafted in as an advisor for the EU, but it is as yet unclear whose side he’ll be on – Britain’s, the US’, or the EU’s.
So far this is the lay of the land. May has said that the UK will not trigger Article 50 until this year is out, so for the time being everything is going to be about preparing the ground. What is important to know is that Scotland is far from friendless. Brussels owes Westminster no favours, but Scotland has shown itself time and again to be an EU asset. Now it seems that Europe has heeded Alyn Smith’s plea. It certainly looks like the pieces have been put in place for a Scottish exit strategy from the sinking ship that is HMS Brexit.