by Dr Kirsty Hughes
Director, Scottish Centre on European Relations

20th March 2020

This comment was first published by Scottish Centre on European Relations

The UK is heading into the most difficult and intense months of the coronavirus crisis – both in terms of the pandemic itself and the major economic and social crisis it is unleashing. The Scottish government, so far, has worked closely with the UK government – despite the latter’s damagingly slow and misplaced initial response (now starting to speed up). Europe is now the centre of the crisis – although events are changing fast in the US, and globally, too.

How the EU and the UK – and the global economy and geopolitics – emerges from this crisis, and what the path of the crisis will be, is as yet unclear. But Brexit – with the two lead negotiators, Michel Barnier and David Frost, now each in isolation – is surely on the back burner. There is neither political, civil service nor public bandwidth to push the talks through in the short time available in this one year transition.

Extending Brexit Transition?

It is, from a rational point of view, extraordinary that the UK government is not yet asking for an extension of transition – as the withdrawal agreement allows for (for one or two years). But this is surely highly likely to come. Perhaps Johnson’s ideological government, struggling to rise to the coronavirus crisis, might irrationally decide that imposing more substantial Brexit damage on to a UK economy, that like other countries, is about to face a very major recession, probably deep depression, is all part of the necessary Brexit transformation. But already we see increasingly major, rapid and centralised government interventions are necessary to handle this crisis’ economic fall-out. And reality may soon start to bite and demand that extension of transition, with the UK staying in the EU’s single market and customs union for longer.

Scotland, Independence and the EU in the Crisis

How the evolving and deepening crisis will develop in the UK, in Scotland and in the EU, and globally, is an open question. A recent UK poll suggests more support for the UK government – that may or not continue. In Scotland, we will see whether the Scottish government differentiates its response – within its limited powers – in any way from that of the UK government. So far, it seems not.

And we will see what happens to public opinion in Scotland. Will support for independence continue on its upward trend visible since the UK left the EU at the end of January (an age away now it seems). Or will the deepening crisis , the lack of attention to Brexit and a quietening of the independence debate show up in a lessening of support for independence? Time will tell.

But if the UK government does follow the obvious rational path and agrees with the EU an extension of the transition period where the UK stays in the EU’s single market and customs union, this will be likely to re-open debates that had moved on – in terms of how, when and how easily (or not) an independent Scotland might re-join the EU if it had not diverged substantially from EU rules.

If the Brexit transition were to continue to the end of 2021 or even into 2022, then the UK would still be in the single market and customs union at the time of the Scottish elections in May 2021 (assuming these go ahead on time – depending on the path the crisis has taken). If these elections show clear majority support for the SNP – and for the pro-independence Scottish Greens – this will create substantial pressure for another independence referendum. And an extension of transition would open up the possibility that an independence referendum could take place by, for instance, the end of 2021 i.e. while the UK was still in the EU’s single market and customs union.

In a scenario of a ‘yes’ vote in an independence referendum while the UK was still in the EU’s single market and customs union, there would then have been no divergence in Scotland from EU rules and laws. Certainly, if the UK agreed a free trade deal with the EU to start from January 2022, then any divorce talks between the UK and Scotland would conclude at least two years after this.

But if at the time of a ‘yes’ vote, Scotland was still in the EU’s single market and customs union, there would be a strong argument for finding ways to keep it closely tied into the EU, during its rest of UK (rUK)-Scotland divorce talks, even while rUK moved into a free trade deal. This would need three-way discussion between rUK, Scotland and the EU, but it is a possible scenario.

Political Uncertainty Dominates

We are at the start not the end of an extraordinary crisis. Where UK, Scottish and European politics will go through the months ahead is unknown. If there were a strong push for an independence referendum in 2021, a ‘no’ from Westminster might still be the likely response. Arguments will doubtless continue or recur over whether to somehow treat the May 2021 elections as a quasi-referendum or to test in court the legality of Holyrood calling an advisory referendum.

But the EU, in a year or more’s time, will be picking up the pieces from this multi-faceted, profound crisis, planning social and economic recovery, continuing with systemic change demanded to tackle climate change (but from a new, changed position) and more. The EU will not be prioritising the future trade deal with the UK – it will, at best, want to get it out the way quickly. The EU, in whatever shape and state it emerges from the crisis, may well still be open to an independent Scotland joining the EU – if it has been a legally and constitutionally valid process. Or the EU may be so pre-occupied by the new world it will find itself in that accession may be the least of its interests – the EU could, for instance, choose to postpone or freeze existing accession processes with the Western Balkans; or alternatively it might consider a major re-think of its range of relationships across Europe.

But if, back in the UK, there is a political and constitutional stand-off between Westminster and Holyrood over an advisory referendum, the EU will stand well back. Even pre-crisis, the EU’s more open political mood music to an independent Scotland post-Brexit, depended on it being an agreed process as in 2014. These key EU political sensitivities will not disappear.

A Year is a Long Time

An extension of the Brexit transition will potentially change the contours of the debate around Scottish independence in the EU – perhaps offering up the prospect of a smoother transition for an independent Scotland from the UK to the EU. And the crisis, and an extension of transition, are also likely to change the context of the UK-EU talks on their future relationship – and perhaps the substance of that relationship as well, possibly in profound ways. And that too would impact on Scotland’s future choices.

But we know, too, that the upheaval ahead will surely change these potential political dynamics in major and myriad ways. The scenarios we come to face in a year’s time may yet look very different indeed.