Brexit is a mess, and worryingly it seems more likely than ever that it’ll end with a no-deal car crash Brexit in March. The situation is developing daily, so the following will probably soon seem very dated, but this is my attempt at summarising where we are and what I think will happen now.
Firstly, where are we?
- The Chequers compromise won’t be acceptable to the EU, esp. as modified by the Customs bill last night. (For a few hours today, it looked like Tory pro-EU rebels were going to force the Government to apply to remain in a customs union with the EU, which would have made a compromise more likely, but they lost narrowly a few minutes ago.)
- The EU will not accept a transitional deal without a backstop for Northern Ireland (i.e., the EU wants a treaty that guarantees the absence of a border across Ireland, even if this means there will be a hard border between Great Britain and Ireland).
- As a result, it’s overwhelmingly likely that Theresa May won’t make a deal with the EU in October, at which point the default is that the UK (incl. Scotland) will crash out without any deal.
- We now know that the Leave campaign cheated, but the UK Government and the BBC don’t seem to care.
- There is not enough time to hold a new Brexit referendum before March, and I believe the same applies to holding a new Independence referendum. Passing the necessary legislation simply takes too long, as explained by the legal blogger David Allen Green:
A further referendum: a dose of legal reality
— David Allen Green (@davidallengreen) July 16, 2018
As a result, here’s what might happen:
- There might be a general election in autumn. However, neither the Conservatives nor Labour seem likely to put forward a manifesto on Brexit that would be acceptable to the EU, so I’m not sure it would change anything.
- Lots of businesses and people will start leaving, combined with a collapse in the value of the pound and a run on the stock market.
- Perhaps Westminster will ask the EU for an extension, but if it’s just to prolong the madness, I’m not convince the EU will agree.
- It’s possible at this stage that there’ll finally be a majority for remaining in the EU at Westminster, but I’m not convinced they’ll act on it without another General Election.
- If we’re lucky, there’ll be a second general election in January of February to gain a mandate to reverse Brexit (in lieu of a second referendum), and hopefully the EU will accept this.
- If we’re unlucky, Westminster will simply be caught in the headlights, unable to do anything while the cliff-edge Brexit approaches. Perhaps there’ll be a mini-deal with the EU to keep the planes flying and so on, but perhaps it’ll even be too late for this.
- If the UK crashes out without a deal in March 2019, mayhem will ensue, as described in Ian Dunt’s book, “Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?” – planes will be grounded, UK supermarkets won’t get new stock, chemo treatments will stop, and so on. I’ve no idea what’ll happen afterwards. Will there be an emergency application to join the EEA like Norway, as well as the Customs Union? Or will the UK Government sign a rapid agreement with the US, allowing American investors to buy up the NHS and flood the market with cheap and unsafe products?
Where does this leave Scotland?
As I wrote above, I sadly believe we’re out of time to hold a new independence referendum before March 2019. Even if Nicola Sturgeon announces it tomorrow, it’ll be very hard to pass the necessary legislation quickly enough (and that’s without even thinking about the lack of consent from Westminster). My best guess is that the SNP leadership had assumed that it would never come to a no-deal Brexit, simply because it’s so insane. If the UK and the EU do manage to agree a deal against all odds, the real Brexit won’t happen till 1st January 2021, and that will give Scotland enough time to escape in time.
The only option I can see is to hold new elections to the Scottish Parliament, putting into the manifestos of the pro-independence parties that a victory for them will be a mandate for independence. Combined with the Claim of Right that Westminster seemed to accept recently, there should be a chance that the UK will accept this and not see it as a UDI. However, I very much doubt that this would be Nicola Sturgeon’s first preference, and being a lawyer herself, she might see enough pitfalls in this strategy to rule it out.
So at the moment, the most likely scenario is that Scotland will be dragged out of the EU, losing a lot of jobs in the process. A lot of EU powers will be grabbed by Westminster (and who knows what they’ll do with them and whether they’ll ever pass them on to Holyrood). Also, the Scottish Government will not be able to protect EU citizens (because the relevant powers aren’t devolved), and many of us will leave. It’s possible all of this will finally convince a large majority of Scots that independence is needed, but it’s also possible many people will blame the SNP for not protecting them against a hard Brexit.
Hopefully a no-deal Brexit can still be avoided, but it seems much more likely than it used to.