EU-Scotland relations after Brexit: where next?

April 2 2024, by Dr Kirsty Hughes FRSE

As we wait for the general election, the polls tell us the party that brought us Brexit, aka the Conservatives, is going to crash to a major defeat. But the damage Brexit has brought the UK and Scotland – both political and economic – is set to continue in the years ahead.

The Brexit vote is already eight years ago. The UK left the EU four years ago – and its single market and customs union three years ago. The damage to growth, trade, exports, the loss of cooperation with our former EU partners on climate, security, justice, digital, development and many other areas – and the damage to our politics too – is set to continue.

Recent polls suggest between 55-60% of UK voters would back joining the EU again. But you won’t see that reflected in the policies of the two main UK parties. Keir Starmer has repeatedly emphasised that he would not even take the UK back into the EU’s single market or customs union (so much for an emphasis on growth), while Peter Mandelson glibly dismisses re-joining as a joke.

That there isn’t even serious discussion of re-joining the EU, or its single market, in London (outside the European Movement UK) speaks volumes about the quality of UK democratic debate and its failure to grapple with the real and multiple damage of Brexit.

In Scotland, the damage of Brexit, the benefits of potentially re-joining the EU’s single market, or of independence in the EU, are not seen as a joke by and large. And the Scottish government and SNP reflect that politically. And this leads to a very different European debate in Scotland compared to England.

Starmer’s declared goals for UK-EU relations are limited – security (perhaps including climate in some way), veterinary standards alignment, youth mobility, mutual recognition of professional qualifications. It’s better than nothing but it’s very little. Rather ironically, this limited wishlist looks rather similar to one espoused by none other than Theresa May back in 2018 when, as UK prime minister, she agreed a draft political declaration with the EU (which, of course, never made it through the Commons). Back to the future indeed.

Scotland and the EU: Options?

Looking at Scotland-EU relations today, it is best to consider those relations as a triangle: the UK-EU relationship, the Scottish-rest of UK (ruk) relationship, and Scotland’s direct, bilateral relations with the EU.

UK-EU relations: Scotland did not manage to achieve any significant differentiation through the Brexit process – despite the Scottish Government setting out that goal in 2016 (of Scotland staying in the EU’s single market and the UK). So, the UK-EU trade and cooperation agreement (TCA) and the withdrawal agreement between them set much of the context for, and constraints and barriers to, EU-Scotland relations.

Scotland-rUK relations: Relations between UK and Scottish governments since the Brexit vote have been mostly rather poor, for various reasons. Brexit, and the way the process was mishandled by the succession of Conservative prime ministers since then, has clearly weakened and undermined devolved powers and devolved relations in both Scotland and Wales (Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit situation being different both in its politics and in the Windsor Framework).

There is precious little Scottish influence on how the UK and EU interact. There is, for instance, just one Scottish MP on the EU-UK parliamentary partnership assembly (which is part of the Brexit deal – with devolved observers present too).

EU-Scotland Relations: Given the EU-UK and Scotland-rUK context, direct EU-Scottish relations look remarkably good if highly constrained. While the UK government’s handling of Brexit talks and EU relations has seriously damaged the UK’s reputation across the EU since 2016, Scotland – with its Remain vote – has been broadly viewed in a much more positive light. Given that the EU is still both the UK’s and Scotland’s main trade partner, that is welcome indeed.

Trade and foreign policy are, of course, reserved powers. But through its Brussels office, and its several hubs in Berlin, Copenhagen, Dublin and Paris, the Scottish Government has promoted economic, cultural and trade issues – notably in building a significant dialogue in Germany on the prospects for a European hydrogen market.

The Scottish Government’s paradiplomacy has been periodically highly neuralgic to the Conservative government. James Cleverly’s letter – or tirade – to UK ambassadors last year emphasising how Scottish ministers must not meet foreign counterparts without a UK diplomat present, and how UK diplomats must make their counterparts aware of this, proved to be a mixture of bizarre and embarrassing. Whether this neuralgia will dissipate under a Labour government is at least open to doubt.

Overall, influencing the EU from the outside, as a third country, or as a sub-state within a third country, is both vital but tough. It has, inevitably, a much more limited impact and produces many fewer results than the process of both UK and Scottish diplomacy inside the EU did prior to Brexit.

Independence

Independence in the EU remains, of course, very much on the table in Scotland’s political debate. Polls so far in 2024 have varied between 48-53% of those polled backing independence. Those supporting independence are more likely to be pro-EU, with a clear majority of those under 45 years old backing independence.

But the SNP’s own support in the polls is down and whether the general election results will see the SNP come out ahead, and revitalise the independence debate, or Labour move past the SNP is an open question.

At the end of last year, the Scottish government published an in-depth policy paper looking at the EU accession process for an independent Scotland, the benefits of EU membership, and too what Scotland would bring to the EU. The material is there for a serious debate on independence in the EU. But the political dynamics are unsteady for now.

Still, while another independence vote looks some time off, there is, even so, a genuine option there of independence in the EU – and at a time when the EU has, to a substantial (if partly contested) extent, rediscovered its enlargement mojo.

Where Next?

Despite the narrow constraints that Keir Starmer has put on future UK-EU relations, how these relations develop, and Scotland’s paradiplomacy too, are vital. Big issues from the climate and biodiversity crises to conflicts from Gaza via Ukraine to Sudan, to the unstable state of geopolitics, all have to be tackled now.

And on climate and biodiversity, a whole set of recent reports suggest neither the EU, the UK nor Scotland are on track to hit their 2030 targets.

In Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen, is in the process – ahead of her likely second term as Commission president, and ahead of European Parliament elections in early June – of dumping a whole slew of vital, planned environmental laws in the face of farmers’ protests and a climate backlash on both the EU centre- and far- right. Given she led impressively on the European Green Deal, this is regressive indeed.

Meanwhile, the UK ‘s climate record since it left the EU is weak – and Rishi Sunak seems determined to make it even worse, including with his announcement last year of new annual rounds of oil and gas licenses in the North Sea. The Scottish Government is on the right page in its climate goals. But it has not stayed aligned to EU environmental laws, despite the proclaimed intention to do so, and is way off track from meeting its 2030 climate goals.

Europe is one of the most degraded regions of the planet in biodiversity terms – and Scotland and England are near the bottom of the European list as measured by biodiversity intactness indices (England worse than Scotland). It is no time for losing momentum.

Brexit means the UK, including Scotland, has lost most of its influence over EU climate and biodiversity decisions – nor are they driven forward by the EU’s Green Deal.

But the time for action is now. Investing as much as possible in EU-UK and Scotland-EU climate and biodiversity relations needs to be at the forefront, however UK and Scottish politics develop in the months ahead – and throughout the rest of this vital decade.

Dr Kirsty Hughes FRSE spoke at the 12th and final Scotland-Europe Initiative workshop in this series which addressed overall Scottish/UK relations with the EU.  Dr Hughes was the founder and director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations from 2017-2021. A leading expert on European politics and public policy, she has worked at several European think tanks, including as European Director at Chatham House, and as a Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe and the Centre for European Policy Studies. Dr Hughes was also a senior political adviser in the European Commission.

This article was first published in the author’s EU and Scotland Newsletter on Substack.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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