A letter from the standing council on Europe, chaired by Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli

We are writing this open letter as members of the Standing Council on Europe, a group of independent advisers established by the First Minister of Scotland immediately after the EU referendum in 2016 to consider the impact of the UK’s exit from the EU on Scottish interests (https://www.gov.scot/groups/standing-council-on-europe/ ). At our meeting on Tuesday we were able to look at the UK Government’s proposals to the EU that had just been released. Unfortunately our assessment was very far from positive.

Whilst pointing out the difficulties in the proposals the EU has, as it should, signalled its willingness to give them a fair hearing and subject them to serious analysis. However in our view it is already clear that the proposals cannot be considered to represent a credible approach which would have any realistic prospect of helping secure a compromise. Whatever the difficulties of gaining the approval of the UK parliament, it is simply not credible to assert that a deal is possible based on a set of proposals that go back on commitments made by the then UK Government in the Joint Report of December 2017, and move so far away from what is known to be the EU’s position – not because of principle or political preference, but because of real issues such as the undermining of the EU Single Market. In particular it is deeply concerning that, despite the UK Government’s claims, these proposals appear not to honour the Good Friday Agreement and therefore risk jeopardising the fragile peace on the island of Ireland, the importance of which is obvious to all. 

The proposals also seem to show a worrying move away from the commitment to maintain high and equivalent levels of environmental and labour standards, and competition policy that benefits consumers. Such a move is concerning not just for the prospects of a deal at this stage, but also in relation to the likelihood of an ambitious long term UK-EU relationship.

This being the case, it follows inevitably that these proposals increase the likelihood that if or when the UK exits the EU, it will do so without a deal. There is of course no shortage of independent analysis showing how disastrous the consequences of No Deal would be for the UK as a whole and for Scotland in particular. Moreover, contrary to the claims that it is possible to get Brexit over and done with in the coming weeks, if the UK Government’s approach does indeed lead to No Deal then the result will be the opposite of that. In a No Deal outcome the UK would still need from outside to negotiate a long term post-exit partnership with the EU, but against an even less propitious backdrop because of the damage the government would have done to the relationship. Such negotiations would have to begin by addressing the very issues on which the UK Government would have failed to reach a successful compromise previously, including the Ireland/Northern Ireland border. Therefore, far from putting an end to the pain of Brexit, the UK Government’s approach risks condemning the country to five years or more of further negotiations with the EU, in a poisoned atmosphere, whilst our economy and our people suffer the consequences of having crashed out. Nor would it be the case that the UK could easily mitigate these consequences by quickly signing new trade deals with non-European countries, because of the impossibility of finalising its overall global trade policy until its trading relations with its closest and most important export market have been resolved.

Our motivation behind writing this letter is not to make an assessment of the desirability or otherwise of Brexit – while noting that in the 2016 referendum Scotland voted in favour of Remain by a clear margin – but to avoid the no deal outcome that has been rejected by parliament, and that the people of Scotland and the UK as a whole most definitely do not want.

We therefore urge the UK Government to go back to the drawing board and come up with proposals that address the concerns of European partners, including the Republic of Ireland, to form a realistic basis for reaching a deal that is in the interest of all sides.