As the UK drowns in Brexit quag­mire, Scot­land points a way back to Europe

Sunday Herald - - COMMENT - Iain Macwhirter

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

Pho­to­graph: Getty Images

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

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