May’s call for unity on Brexit highlights rifts with devolved regions

Leaders of devolved administrations range from muted to contemptuous after meeting

Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster and her deputy Martin McGuinness outside 10 Downing Street  after holding talks with British prime minister Theresa May. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster and her deputy Martin McGuinness outside 10 Downing Street after holding talks with British prime minister Theresa May. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

 

When the leaders of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland emerged from their meeting with UK prime minister Theresa May in Downing Street on Monday, their mood ranged from openly frustrated to restrained and non-committal.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon was most contemptuous, complaining that “despite a full and frank exchange of views around the table” they knew no more about the British government’s approach to the European Union negotiations now than they did going into the meeting.

Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones echoed Sturgeon’s frustration, while Northern Ireland’s Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness were more muted, simply insisting that they must have a place at the heart of the negotiations.

May did not offer the devolved administrations a place on the team that will negotiate with the EU but Monday’s meeting did produce a structured timetable for engagement in advance of triggering article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty next year. A subcommittee of the Joint Ministerial Committee, a long-neglected forum for the political leaders in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont to meet, will start work on Brexit next month.

United position

The prime minister told the devolved administrations that she wanted their input in shaping the negotiations to leave the EU and she promised to listen to any ideas they put forward. But her government has made clear that the devolved administrations will not be able to halt the start of formal Brexit talks and that she is pursuing a united negotiating position for the entire UK.

“We have been very clear that we should be working together to secure the best possible deal for the whole country,” the prime minister’s official spokeswoman said on Monday.

“We expect representatives of the devolved administrations to act in that way and to in no way undermine the UK’s position.”

Sturgeon made clear after the Downing Street meeting that she intended to pursue “alternative options” including bringing forward proposals aimed at securing Scotland’s place in the European single market even if the rest of the UK leaves, and continuing to prepare for the option of a second referendum on independence.

Downing Street’s flat-out rejection of a “flexible Brexit”, with differentiated relationships with the EU for the UK’s constituent parts, is consistent with the view that the Westminster government alone is responsible for negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. But as a report from the Institute for Government pointed out on Monday, although the UK is not a federal state, it is not a unitary one either.

Offering the devolved administrations no more than a consultative role in the negotiations may be legally justifiable. But it is less certain that it reflects the political reality of devolution or the fact that majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

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