Scotland: What Strategy as Brexit Talks Get Under Way?

Kirsty Hughes, 2017
Picture Credit: Kirsty Hughes


By mid-June, with the general election over, Brexit talks will finally start. What strategy should Scotland’s government and political parties adopt to protect Scotland’s interests?

With party positions ranging from independence in the EU (SNP, Greens), to soft Brexit and a second UK referendum on the exit deal (Lib Dems) to getting the best Brexit deal possible (Labour, Conservatives), there may appear to be little scope for agreement on defining Scotland’s interests either in the talks or in the process of returning EU laws to the UK.

But there are vital questions for all parties and key issues that demand a strategic approach. The Brexit talks and return of powers to the UK and to Scotland will be played out at both Westminster and at Holyrood – and should also require considerable discussion and coordination between the UK government and the three devolved administrations.

These key strategic issues go well beyond areas of devolved competence yet will have major implications for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Leaving the EU means, amongst other issues, the UK setting up a range of new or beefed-up agencies and regulatory structures (from drugs to environment to nuclear materials and more), returning powers to the devolved administrations, developing its own separate trade policy, and beginning to differentiate UK law from EU law (having first brought it into UK law via the Great Repeal Bill).

It is clear that a comprehensive UK-EU27 trade and security deal cannot be agreed before March 2019. Rather there will be an exit deal covering, as a priority, EU citizens in the UK & UK citizens in the EU, budget liabilities, and Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland. The aim will also be to have an agreed outline framework for a future comprehensive UK-EU27 trade deal.

This means – to avoid an abrupt, cliff-edge departure in March 2019 – there will also need to be a transition arrangement (perhaps for 3-4 years) as part of the UK-EU27 exit deal. With its aim of holding a second independence referendum, the Scottish government will have a particular interest in the terms of this transition deal and how close it keeps Scotland and the rest of the UK to existing EU laws. Yet there may also be considerable scope for substantial cross-party consensus on the transition approach – even though not for the same reasons.

There will be different routes for attempting to influence the range of issues that Brexit has opened up. The current consultation framework for the Brexit talks via the Joint Ministerial Committee has not worked well and has clearly lacked genuine consultation on strategic issues. Whether that can or will be significantly improved must be in doubt. So how the Scottish government, Scottish MPs and MSPs can best attempt to influence both the negotiations and new UK structures and laws is a central political challenge for all parties – not least given Theresa May’s highly centralised approach to her negotiating strategy (with the February White Paper[1] adding very little by way of detail to how she may approach the talks).