Article 50 Withdrawal Process
Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
9 January 2018
Lewis Macdonald :
Today’s debate has reflected the many different ways in which the economy, the institutions and the cultural life of Scotland and the United Kingdom are intertwined with those of our nearest neighbours and with the European Union itself.
The work of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee over the past 18 months has shown that the Brexit process and the creation of a whole new set of relationships outwith the EU will be complex and difficult and will throw up unintended and unexpected consequences.
That is confirmed, too, by the report that Dr Tobias Lock prepared for the committee on the processes for agreeing a transition, negotiating a future relationship and reaching a final agreement.
As well as being huge undertakings in themselves, those processes risk drawing attention and resources away from the many other challenges that Governments and Parliaments face every day.
Michael Russell: It was remiss of me not to pay tribute to the member for his contribution while he was a spokesperson on Brexit for the Labour Party, when I worked with him, as well as for the contribution that he is now making in the committee. I wanted to put that on the record.
Lewis Macdonald: It is very kind of Mr Russell to do so, and I thank my fellow committee members who have made such comments in the course of today’s debate.
In case I do not have time at the end of my speech—given your attention to such matters, Presiding Officer—I also thank Joan McAlpine, the convener, and all the members of the committee for the hard work that they have done, especially given the work that I know lies ahead.
Joan McAlpine: I, too, congratulate the member on his contribution to the committee and, indeed, the forensic approach that he has taken to all our inquiries, which has made such a difference to some of the reports that we have produced.
The Deputy Presiding Officer: Can that be the last bit of the love-in, please? Thank you.
This is in clear danger of turning into an even more consensual contribution than deputy conveners of committees are wont to make, but I very much thank the convener for those comments.
In the work that the committee has done over the period, we have discovered layer upon layer of complexity in the Brexit process.
For example, in September, we went to Brussels to discuss with Michel Barnier the question of transitional arrangements, and we discovered at that time that, although he was ready to talk about transition, the United Kingdom Government had not yet asked him to do so and no formal request for such transition had been made.
However, we have now reached that point.
There will be a negotiation on transition and the transition will run from March 2019 to the end of the current multiannual financial framework period, which the UK is now fully committed to funding, and therefore to the end of December 2020.
As Mr Barnier told us in September, that means that, in a transitional period—an implementation period, if you will—the United Kingdom will continue to be subject to EU law and all regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures will continue to apply, as will the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, the rules of the single market and the customs union and the freedom of movement of people, goods, capital and services.
Britain, in other words, will continue to have the obligations of a member state without the powers of one.
As Lord Kerr of Kinlochard told the committee, a transition offers a stay of execution in that the rules of engagement for British businesses in Europe will continue over the next three years instead of only the next 15 months, but it is too soon to know whether that deferral will help to mitigate the impact of Brexit on the British economy.
It is too soon to know that because transition will be useful only once we know what it is that we are going to transition to. The committee has pursued that issue.
Just before Christmas, the UK Government discussed what kind of relationship it wants to see between Britain and Europe.
However, it has not yet spelled out its potential desired outcome. The reports that emerged spoke of “aiming high” for “a bespoke agreement”, but they did not say what that agreement would look like.
Working to achieve a bespoke agreement surely has to start with a clear view of the intended outcome, which we do not yet have—at least not in the kind of detail that would allow an international treaty to be negotiated and agreed.
Like others elsewhere, the committee also pursued the question of what detailed sectoral analysis had been done of the impact of Brexit. As others have been, we were forced to conclude that no such analysis exists.
It is difficult to understand how anyone can aspire to design a bespoke agreement without knowing the desired outcome.
As Tobias Lock highlights in his report, a new treaty will need all member states to ratify it in line with their own constitutional arrangements—and the agreement with Canada last year showed just what a tortuous process that can be.
We have a duty to seek to understand the positions that are taken by both parties and what they might mean, and that goes to the heart of the debate.
As things stand, the UK Government’s red lines rule out freedom of movement, the jurisdiction of the ECJ and substantial financial contributions to the EU while ruling in regulatory divergence and an independent trade policy.
As Michel Barnier told the European Council last month, those red lines mean that the UK cannot have a trade relationship on the model of the EEA, the Swiss bilateral agreements, the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine or the customs union between the EU and Turkey.
If that is the case, a bespoke deal must surely mean something more like the third-party trade agreements that have been reached with countries such as Canada and South Korea, which have much less access than we enjoy today, particularly where services are concerned.
As Michel Barnier emphasised to us in September, the balance between rights and obligations means that Britain cannot have the same access to the single market as Norway but only the obligations of Canada.
It will be for the committee this year and next year to establish just what UK ministers are seeking to achieve and what they think a bespoke agreement actually means.
It is also important to make the point that, if the single market is indivisible, there cannot be one set of rules governing access to the single market and the customs union for Great Britain and another set of rules for Northern Ireland.
The convener has quoted the UK Government’s commitment at the end of phase 1 to protect the Good Friday agreement and to see no return to a hard border, with
“full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”
If Northern Ireland is to be fully aligned with all or most of the rules of the single market and the customs union, the rest of the United Kingdom must also be.
Adam Tomkins’s closing remarks on those matters were in line with much of the evidence that the committee has heard recently.
The choices that need to be made are the reason why clarity about the objective that is being pursued by the UK Government matters so much, and it will continue to be of critical importance to the work of the committee and the Parliament as a whole.
On the one hand, there are the red lines, which imply that Britain will diverge from European standards, leave the customs union and seek separate trade agreements with third countries.
On the other hand, commitments given on Ireland can be delivered only by continued alignment with single market regulation across a wide range of areas, continued access for Irish citizens in the UK to European justice and free movement across the Irish border and the Irish Sea.
That is the choice that the United Kingdom will have to make this year.
Either we seek a future aligned with Europe, protecting access to the single market and maintaining existing rights and obligations, or we set out in a quite different direction.
The Scottish Parliament must continue to scrutinise the actions of UK and Scottish ministers in dealing with those matters and must seek to ensure that the right choices are made in the months ahead.
At the conclusion of the debate, I will step down as the deputy convener of the committee.
With your indulgence, Presiding Officer, I therefore thank Dr Katy Orr and the clerking team as well as all those who have supported the committee’s work.
I also thank my fellow committee members.
A good job has been done so far in difficult circumstances, but there is clearly still a big job to be done.