Tories mishandling talks in ‘startling’ way – Scottish minister

Mike Russell says if North remains in EU market, Scotland should have choice to stay in too

Britain will not resolve the question of the Irish border after Brexit until it has also agreed the outline of a trade deal with the European Union, the country's International Trade Minister Liam Fox said on Sunday (November 26).

 

The deadlock over the future of the Irish Border has meant that in the multi-rope tug-of-war contest that is the Brexit negotiations, some strenuous pulling by our closest neighbours has been overlooked here.

At the end of one rope is a frustrated Mike Russell, Scotland’s Brexit minister. The politician, a member of the Scottish National Party, which opposed the UK’s leaving the EU, has felt that the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been kept in the dark in the Brexit process and the UK’s Conservative government has mishandled and misread overall negotiations “in a fairly startling way”.

“Ireland and Europe are the two issues that have essentially bedevilled the Tory party for 150 years. Theresa May has shown a particular genius in bringing the two of them together,” Russell tells The Irish Times on a visit to Dublin.

“They are faced with the most difficult task that a UK government has ever faced. They are ideologically divided and they have no clear vision of what they want to achieve.”

For Russell the UK government has not realised that “more than an idea on the table” is required in the talks, and the unpreparedness of May’s government has mired the process.

“How can you negotiate with people who do not know what they want or who know what they want and don’t know how to get there?” he ponders, sipping a coffee in a Dublin hotel.

The complex untangling of the UK’s relationship with the EU has serious consequences for the future of the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, yet Russell had to wait six months to receive the British government’s EU withdrawal bill, which requires the legislative consent of the Scottish parliament.

“So it is that lack of thinking-through and of preparation. The UK civil service is a good civil service, so you must assume that the political leadership is lacking,” he said.

The SNP wants Scotland to remain within the EU, but if Brexit happens, Russell believes that the “only acceptable solution” is for Scotland to remain within the customs union, the EU’s tariff-free trading area, and the bloc’s single market that allows the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. As he sees it, there is “no such thing as a good Brexit” – it will only be damaging, particularly for Scotland.

“We have looked at this from every single angle and the damage that will be done,” he says.

Irish Sea border

Freedom of movement is critical for Scotland’s future wellbeing because of the country’s ageing population, particularly in Russell’s own constituency of Argyll and Bute. In the Scottish highlands and islands, 80,000 of the region’s 250,000 workforce are due to retire in the next five years, he says.

“We cannot replace that without substantial levels of migration,” he said.

The Irish Government’s preferred option to avoid a hard Border is effectively to leave Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market and push the border into the Irish Sea. The EU supports this, while the UK government and the Democratic Unionist Party, on whose support May needs to stay in power, reject it.

It would “create difficulties for Scotland”, says Russell, and would mean a hard Scottish border, forcing Edinburgh to reconfigure ports such as Stranraer and Ardrossan. This throws up challenges in the talks.

“Politically that becomes a very difficult thing in the context of Northern Ireland and that requires a resolution, and that isn’t made easier by the political tie-up between the Tories and the DUP,” he says.

A hard border on Scotland’s coast would be “problematic”, he adds.

“I don’t want to make any solution harder. We are not at the table on this. We don’t have deal-breakers in that regard, but there are practical issues to be resolved.”

Westminster power grab

If Northern Ireland were to remain in the single market and the customs union, Russell believes that, short of staying in the EU, it would be an “ideal situation” for Scotland to be part of this “unit”. Is he suggesting a type of Celtic union encompassing Ireland and Scotland?

“We don’t want to leave. We believe staying in the single market and the customs union is the best solution for us. If that solution is applied elsewhere, we believe we are entitled to say ‘Can we join in?’ ” he says.

In the meantime the Scottish and Welsh have joined forces for the first time since devolution to fight against Westminster’s “power grab” on policy responsibilities returning from Brussels post-Brexit.

The absence of a devolved government in Northern Ireland has meant that Belfast has played no role in the negotiations around these significant powers, something that Ireland’s lead official Brexit negotiator at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Rory Montgomery, described last week as “close to unforgivable”.

Russell says the Bill represents “a serious threat to devolution”.

“We would have hoped that the DUP would have seen that, but they don’t seem to have reacted to that yet. The fact that Northern Ireland isn’t there and its voice isn’t being heard is a major difficulty.”

A foolish thing

He declines to say what an Irish general election would mean for the Brexit talks at this critical juncture, with the mid-December summit of EU leaders looming, but says that the various parties “need to get on with” the first phase of talks on the UK’s divorce bill from the EU, citizens’ rights and the Irish Border.

There are fewer than 500 days until Brexit is due to happen, he notes with some urgency.

At some stage he believes the Scottish people will have to choose between the final Brexit outcome and membership of the EU with a second vote on independence, given how much has changed since the 2014 vote.

“The right time to do it is when we know what the choice is,” he says.

Russell believes Brexit is “highly likely” but not inevitable, certainly not for Scotland.

“As Robert Burns put it about the Union, the ‘boasted advantages’ of Brexit – where are they and how are they going to be delivered? I think the more we question that, the more obvious it is that this is a foolish thing that cannot produce the results that anybody claims for it.”