It’s becoming clear that the EU negotiators are expecting the UK to go through three phases of Brexit:
- The negotiating period (March 2017—March 2019): During this time, the UK will negotiate the divorce while remaining a full member of the EU.
- The transitional period (starting in March 2019, and lasting for two to five years): The UK will not be a member any more, but will remain inside the Internal Market and the Customs Union, and there will still be free movement of people. This time will be spent negotiating trade agreements and all the other bits and pieces that will regulate the future relationship between the rEU and the UK.
- Full Brexit: The UK will now be outside the EU, including the Internal Market and the Customs Union, so the relationship will be similar to the one between the EU and Canada.
The Brexiteers had clearly expected to skip the second phase, but the EU is being very insistent that it’s impossible to negotiate the details of the third phase during the first one, so it will be necessary.
It is possible, of course, that the Tory government will crash out of the EU without any deal – transitional or permanent – to avoid all this hassle, and it might indeed be the only way for them to keep their backbenchers and the tabloid press happy, but we’ll ignore this possibility for now.
So what will it mean for Scottish independence if the UK has to go through a transitional period? It’s actually really good news.
Without a transitional period, Scotland’s problem is there hardly will be any time after the second independence referendum before the UK leaves the EU, and Scotland will then be forced to choose between leaving the UK in a rush and leaving the EU for a while before joining again, neither of which is great.
However, everything becomes much easier with a transitional period. What’s important is for Scotland to leave the UK and negotiate membership terms with the EU before the rUK enters the third phase, but two to five years should be sufficient for these two tasks. In effect, the three phases will then look as follows:
- The UK negotiates Brexit and Scotland votes for independence.
- The UK (incl. Scotland) leaves the EU but remains inside the Internal Market and the Customs Union. The rUK negotiates future trade deals while Scotland negotiates membership terms.
- The rUK leaves the Internal Market and the Customs Union, and Scotland joins the EU as a full member.
If the UK crashes out without a deal, then this will of course not be possible. In that case, Scotland’s best chance is to vote for independence as soon as possible and then beg the EU for an temporary deal while negotiating membership.
However, I’d like to think that the UK government will see sense and agree to the three phases suggested by the EU.