It seems trite to say it, but protecting Scotland’s, and the UK’s, interests as Brexit rolls forward is not a simple exercise. Brexit is complicated and the solutions and processes required to fix it will be complicated, not least because we have seen so little clarity from the UK government on what they actually want to achieve. Now is the time for those of us who can work together to work together across parties and borders to find solutions.
We feel for journalists trying to cover Brexit as we all try to make sense of it all, but the shorthand usually used to get the complex ideas across never quite works. From ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ to ‘clean’ or ‘cliff’ through to even ‘red white and blue’ Brexit, journalists and politicians alike have desperately tried to find terminology that explains what is going to happen, in vain. Anyone attempting to pretend it is simple and straightforward is either uninformed themselves or trying to mislead. The four-dimensional challenge set by the Brexit vote was to find a solution that measured up to what the UK majority want (assuming a consensus can be found) while taking into account the specific political and economic circumstances in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar, and does as little damage as possible to all our economies and reputational damage to our state in the wider world.
The good news is the EU is good at finding solutions. The bad news is that the Prime Minister, in thrall to the extremists in her own ranks, seems uninclined to explore them lest she be accused of compromise or weakness. There is still time, even if or when Article 50 is triggered. We have published an analysis of a range of places across the EU’s territory that have exactly such constitutional exceptions as we need to explore to find answers to our own conundrums. We offer it to the discussion as evidence that solutions can be found if there is a will to find them.
The assertion that ‘we can do it better’ outside the single market is simply not grounded in reality, and we should delay while we properly consider the implications of leaving. There has been woefully inadequate preparation for the scale of the task ahead. Even the creation of our own WTO schedules will be a long process and fraught with difficulty, practical, logistical and political. There is no simple “reverting to WTO status”. Negotiating our own deals is not yet even practically possible, because we do not know what terms we can offer. Firstly we need to deal with Article 50, then conclude a trade deal with the EU, then negotiations with the 63 countries that the EU currently has deals with to replicate or renegotiate their terms, only then can we turn to the 160 or so countries in the WTO to complete our new, post Brexit, schedules. Only once we have those schedules can discussions start on such new deals as may be possible. Leaving the Single Market is neither easy nor painless, and the UK government needs, urgently, to seriously explore other options. There are plenty of them.
And there is the domestic context. If the rest of the UK is to leave the Single Market, and we do not believe it should, then keeping Scotland (potentially alongside Northern Ireland and Gibraltar) within it should be an objective of the UK Government. This is a reasonable compromise that would reflect where Scotland is, politically, economically and as a society.
The EU is flexible. As members of the Standing Council on Europe who advised Scotland's First Minister this is something we have made clear throughout, and ventilate in the paper.
Campione d'Italia, Büsingen am Hochrhein and Livigno are parts of the EU enclosed by the territory of Switzerland and have had arrangements put in place to ensure they can operate as distinct economies. The Faroe Islands, Åland Islands and Heligoland are just some of the territories that have some form of variable geometry within Europe again to respect their unique geographic and political circumstances. San Marino, Svalbard, the UK Sovereign Bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia give more examples. The list goes on and that is before we go beyond the immediate area of the continent of Europe. Closer to home, we already see variable geometry in action in the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. Around 60 territories and nations have some sort of flexible relationship with the rest of Europe, and there are plenty of differences across the member states themselves. There is no one size fits all, quite the opposite.
None of them provide a direct template for Scotland, the UK, nor anywhere else, but they do illustrate the potential flexibility that exists and that can be deployed to find answers that work. The EU can and does provide flexible solutions. Any solution will be complex, awkward even, and will need serious political heft behind it. But solutions are possible. We need to see a greater common political will to find them. Let’s not rush in until we have.