by Natália Poláková
In past issues, Re:Views has shed light on the UK’s recent referendum history. Indeed, the very first issue of our magazine reported on the Scottish independence referendum while successive ones have closely watched post-Brexit referendum machinations. The debate over the Brexit deal is still a tangled affair, far from a concluding phase, with a new row over the devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales sparking another series of brain-racking political agitation. Whether the Brexit talks can lead to a win-win outcome for both the UK and EU is yet to be seen.
Brexit talks have been dragging on for almost two years now and involve the efforts of thousands of UK public servants and EU officials. Theresa May is no better off than she was at the beginning of the process and is still stuck between the hard Brexit demands from Tory colleagues and harsh criticism from soft Brexiteers in Westminster. The 2017 talks seemed on the verge of collapse but faced with the risk of failure to strike a deal, May decided to give ground. Thus, the last-minute “divorce bill” settled on December 8 paved way for future trade deals.
Faced with the risk of failure to strike a deal, May decided to give ground.
More importantly, UK agreed to avoid a ‘hard border’ with Ireland, which would have otherwise recalled the bitter past of ‘The Troubles’ and questioned the validity of the Good Friday Agreement. Apart from the delicate border issue, the UK ceded to secure the rights of EU citizens living within the country and negotiated a financial settlement estimated between £35bn and £39bn, covering the budget contributions during a two-year transitional period after March 2019. The EU regarded the December deal as a real “breakthrough” after a series of mini dramas and a “personal triumph” for the Prime Minister.
However, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage viewed the deal as “not acceptable” and Boris Johnson again called for taking back control of laws, borders and money. To put it simply, placating Dublin over the Irish border did not placate the deeply divided Tories. Only a few days after the breakthrough deal, Conservative rebels inflicted a serious defeat on Theresa May in the House of Commons by backing an amendment to her withdrawal bill over the parliament’s right to a vote on the final Brexit deal. Equally, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused May of resisting democratic accountability.
Furthermore, in late February, the issue of the customs union moved into the political spotlight. Supported by Labour and those in support of a soft Brexit, the possibility of forming such as a union with the EU after the withdrawal sparked an optimistic outlook for Britain’s future position within Europe. Corbyn demanded not only a comprehensive customs union, but also the right to do trade deals and have a say in future free trade negotiations. Although such a set-up is highly unlikely to be formally approved by the EU, according to Dublin it would be a “good thing” for both Britain and EU, and potentially solve the Irish question.
Nevertheless, there is another issue Theresa May should be concerned about – Scottish “Brexit troublemakers”¹ headed by charismatic Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson. Davidson’s popularity has risen beyond her star appearance in a baking show on Channel 4 while May’s political capital has been wearing out faster than expected. Even though the outcome of the Brexit referendum triggered the independence debate once again, a second independence referendum will not be held in the foreseeable future. Not only did the SNP lose seats in the last general election, with a slip in popularity in the opinion polls, but the independence question fundamentally lacks support from a public which is disillusioned by the political turmoil caused by the Brexit referendum.
The independence question fundamentally lacks support from a public which is disillusioned by the political turmoil.
Instead, it is the post-Brexit powers of the devolved administrations that are on the political menu today. Brexit not only poses a substantial threat to the Scottish economy and includes huge financial cuts in farm support system which is currently funded by the EU Common Agricultural Policy. Additionally, it threatens the devolution settlement that Scotland voted for in 1997.
So far, the Scottish and UK governments have not reached an agreement over how powers – which are currently exercised from Brussels, but not reserved to Westminster – are to be redistributed after UK leaves the EU. The powers fall into areas like farming, fishing, environmental regulations, food standards and public procurement. In other words, the bill should prepare Scottish and UK laws in the event of withdrawal from the EU, but in practice, it gives Westminster the right to oversee and regulate all of the devolved policy areas related to the EU membership regardless of Scottish interests. Whereas Holyrood and Westminster remain deadlocked over the EU devolution bill, their counterparts in the Welsh Assembly finally backed the bill on April 24, leaving Scotland in a lone fight in spite of calling the Brexit deal “naked power-grab” a few months earlier.
The Scottish and UK governments have not reached an agreement over how powers – which are currently exercised from Brussels, but not reserved to Westminster – are to be redistributed.
The UK government said it had made considerable concessions and a new bill on the table saw a vast majority of powers being returned to the devolved administrations. The Welsh government noted that UK-wide rules were indeed necessary for a smooth functioning UK internal market. However, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon rejected the bill because “it is not in the national interest”. Her approach was criticized by Ruth Davidson, who argued that Sturgeon was acting purely in a nationalist, not national, interest. Earlier this year, Davidson also showed support for a legal challenge in the supreme court in case the Scottish parliament voted for its own powers over Brexit.
In this writer’s opinion, Scotland’s stubborn attitude will not help the Brexit talks and before UK strikes a deal with both Scotland and EU, respectively, May will have more than a few sleepless nights in front of her this year.
1 ‘Brexit troublemakers’ is a list of people to watch as legislation disentangling Britain from the European Union goes through the U.K. parliament (Politico 2018).