As the UK drowns in Brexit quagmire, Scotland points a way back to Europe
TO govern is to be blamed. Nicola Sturgeon gets very frustrated with the da mned- i f - you-dodamned-if- you- don’t attitude of the press. If the Scottish Government succeeds in getting more working-class students to enter university, she is attacked for discriminating against the middle classes. Increased drug mortality figures, largely dating from the Trainspotting generation of the 1990s, are duly laid at the Scottish Government’s door, as if it had been retrospectively negligent. And, of course, almost anything the Scottish Government says about Scotland’s possible future after Brexit is dismissed as either nationalist trouble-making or fantasy politics. Curious then, that this week the UK Government started cribbing from Nicola Sturgeon’s hymn sheet on Brexit.
In its White Paper, Scotland’s Place in Europe, published in December, the Scottish Government explored options for keeping Scotland in some form of EU halfway house, post-Brexit. Sturgeon’s ideal solution was for Scotland to remain in the European Single Market (ESM), but the paper also considered options short of that, including continued membership of the customs union, which is basically the European Single Market in goods as opposed to services. The paper cited examples like the Channel Islands, where Jersey and Guernsey are not members of the EU but remain in the EU Customs Union. The Isle of Man is also in the customs union and is not part of the European Union, though it is subject to UK law. Turkey is also in the CU but not the EU.
Last week, to the chagrin of ultra-Brexiters like Nigel Farage, the UK Government said that Britain too will remain in the customs union after Brexit, at least for three years and probably for a great deal longer. After the transitional period is up, the UK wants to move to a “borderless customs partnership” which sounds very like the customs union under another name. In such a union, the member countries agree to “friction-free” zero-tariff trade between them, and com- mon external tariffs on goods coming in to the union area. This means member states cannot sign bilateral trade agreements with counties outside the customs union – it’s all done centrally by Brussels.
But there is more. The Scottish Government White Paper argued that there need be no land border between Scotland and England after Brexit. This was pooh-poohed as nationalist nonsense. How could you not have a border between England and Scotland if the former is out of the European Union, and the latter is still part of it? It would raise legal issues about trading standards and regulation. It would be a back door for EU migrants coming to England, said critics.
Well, on Tuesday, the UK Government confirmed there would be no land border between the Republic of Ireland, which is in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is out of it. This may have been the UK Government’s ambition all along, but they have now set it in stone.
“Ireland will not have to choose between having a strong commitment to the EU or to the UK,” says Brexit Secretary David Davis, “it can and should have both.” This surely means that there could be no principled legal or practical objection, at least from the UK, to a similar arrangement be- tween Scotland and England after Brexit. Of course, it would have to be agreed by the European Union. But it is surely remarkable that the UK is now adopting positions which were “unworkable and unrealistic” only last December.
Then on Thursday, true blue Brexiters had their biggest shock when it was reported that the UK Government intends to keep visa-free movement for EU citizens coming after Brexit. People from Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania will be able to come and live anywhere in the UK, freely and without hindrance, exactly as they do at present. They will be free to work here as well, though the UK Government wants to control immigrant numbers by requiring every non-British employee to have a work permit. Presumably the Government would issue quotas of work permits for jobs like construction or agriculture. It will mean, in effect, that there are no land borders with Europe, but there will be a border around every workplace in Britain.
Now, this was also one of the solutions proposed in the Scottish Government’s White Paper. It suggested that concerns about Scotland retaining free movement, and thus becoming a migrant backdoor, could be addressed by a system of “checks at the place of employment”.
Scotland already has a unique tax code as a result of the Scottish Rate of Income tax, which would automatically define workers as having being employed north of the Border. Work permits could also be issued on a regional basis. Of course, when the Scottish Government made this proposal it assumed that visa-free movement for EU citizens would end with Brexit. Now that the Government has decided to continue with it, the issue largely goes away. There will be no additional UK border restrictions for EU citizens, so legal (and illegal) migration, north and south, can continue as at present.
Regulating migration by work permit is actually a rather clumsy way of “taking back control”. British firms will surely demand that sufficient work permits are issued to allow them to fill their vacancies, when there aren’t enough qualified job applicants from Britain. This labour shortage, facing bodies like the Scottish NHS, care homes and fruit farmers, is why immigration increased in the first place. The administrative burden on small businesses will be great. If and when the UK leaves the EU, the work permit system of migration control may be rapidly abandoned as bureaucratic and discriminatory.
The European Union has not responded to this proposal, which will be presented formally in a UK paper later this year, but one suspects that, if Britain starts arbitrarily denying work permits to EU citizens, then that would invite retaliation from the remaining 26 countries. Around 800,000 British nationals currently work in the EU. A fairer solution would be to allow anyone in the EU who is qualified to apply for any job. But that, of course, is what happens in the European Single Market which has been rejected as incompatible with Brexit.
Visa-free movement also appears to contradict Theresa May’s repeated statements that, after Brexit, controls on EU migrants would be the same as for non-EU citizens. It seems migrants from non-EU countries like India and Australia, the very “global markets” with which we are supposed to be establishing new trading relations, will still have to apply for visas. These visa restrictions can be onerous.
At one show I attended at the Edinburgh Festival, Chill Habibi, which included performers from across the Arab world, saw one-third of the production team denied entry visas, mostly on the grounds that they were young and had no family or property in their home countries. If they’d come from the EU, there would have been no problem.
This has been a perplexing week for those of us trying to make sense of where the UK is going. But the bottom line is that the UK seems increasingly to be looking at flexible arrangements, differentiated relationships which echo the Scottish Government’s ideas. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to help Scotland in its efforts to negotiate its own special place in Europe. Westminster has lost its fear of the breakup of Britain since Nicola Sturgeon shelved indyref2 in June. The line now is likely to be: like it or lump it.
The bottom line is that the UK seems increasingly to be looking At flexible arrangements, differentiated relationships which echo the Scottish government’s ideas
Several options in First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s White Paper exploring postBrexit options for Scotland – including remaining within the customs union – seem to have been adopted by the UK Government