Two broken unions?
British Prime Minister Theresa May will invoke the infamous Article 50 on March 29, formally kicking off divorce negotiations with the other 27 EU member states. Britain will leave the EU, with or without a deal, in March 2019.
But this is not the only union under threat, as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced that on May 13 she will seek a second referendum on Scottish independence between the summer of 2018 and the spring of 2019, when the outline of any Brexit deal should be known. This will be formally made a request to the British government after a vote in the Scottish Parliament this week.
So the British government is leaving the EU to regain full sovereignty over its decision-making, and Scotland may do the same as it too wants to be able to make its own decisions, one of which may be to stay in the EU.
May is clear that she will not consent to a Scottish referendum during the Brexit negotiations. She says the country needs to “work together” to get the right deal for the UK, including Scotland. It would mean that any Brexit deal would be in the process of being ratified when a contentious referendum on Scotland takes place. What is unclear is if May will allow it during the current Parliament, which ends in 2020. Sturgeon has indicated there may be grounds for compromise on the date.
The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) argument is that Scottish voters overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum. Sturgeon’s bottom line is that Scotland must be part of the single market. So the agreement that the 2014 referendum was a once-in-a-generation event was meaningless given the massive constitutional change that, is in their view, being imposed on Scotland. For Sturgeon, if May ignores Scotland’s request, it would “shatter beyond repair any notion of the UK as a respectful partnership of equals.”
Many politicians in Westminster resent the idea of holding yet another referendum on Scottish independence just because the SNP got the wrong answer two and a half years ago. But others argue that this time English politicians in Westminster might be better advised to let the Scots decide and simply not get involved in any future campaign, for fear of antagonizing Scottish sentiment.
The law is that the UK Parliament makes the ultimate decision, but the SNP says any blocking move would be undemocratic, and expects many Scots to be appalled. It may incentivize May to seek a softer Brexit, with some form of access to the single market, to appease the Scots against the hard-line anti-EU segment of her own Conservative Party. Some see this as nothing more than a blatant negotiating tactic to get a better deal for Scotland in Brexit.
If Scotland does become independent, it poses a genuine question as to Britain’s place in the world. Should it still be a permanent member of the UN Security Council?
But would Scotland vote to go it alone? And if so, how swift would it be? All the indications are that it will be once again very tight, so the quality of any Brexit deal could be decisive. The signs of a positive agreement that could satisfy most Scots are slim. The British government has presented scant detail of its negotiating position, and appears unclear as to what sort of outcome it will accept.
Negotiating with 27 states will be tough, as Canada found. Initial talks, likely to start after the French elections, may well center on the cost of divorce — effectively what Britain will pay to the EU, the fate of EU citizens in Britain, and that of British citizens in EU states. Two years seems a very narrow window for such negotiations, given their complexity. The situation in Ireland is also in flux, with the distinct possibility of a 310-mile hard border being imposed between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
What could this mean for the outside world? It could complicate the whole Brexit process, meaning that Britain will be even more bogged down than it is already. British foreign policy has been downgraded effectively into a series of public relations visits to smooth the way for future trade deals. Human rights issues appear an irritating sideshow to a highly pragmatic approach.
Further down the line, if Scotland does become independent, it poses a genuine question as to Britain’s place in the world. Should it still be a permanent member of the UN Security Council?
Many EU states with regions with breakaway ambitions are alarmed, not least Spain and Belgium. These states are not likely to make it easy for Scotland simply to break with Britain and become a new EU state. Their argument is that Scotland will have to reapply and join the queue of accession states.
For Britain, following the extraordinary Brexit vote, liberal politics has yet to recover to mount a serious rebuttal to inward-looking nationalism, or a convincing message to the many who felt excluded, marginalized and left behind. The derisory state of the Labour Party has left opposition to the government in the hands of Tory Europhiles and Scottish nationalists, with all the inherent dangers for a democracy that an unopposed government represents.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.