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European Union Exit

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

This statement will consider the impact on Scotland of the new EU withdrawal agreement and political declaration, which were negotiated by Boris Johnson and are enshrined in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, the passage of which, at Westminster, was dramatically paused by the Prime Minister just over a week ago.

The Prime Minister, in true Trumpian fashion, calls the package of measures a “great deal”. It is nothing of the sort. No Brexit can be a good Brexit, but this deal would be a particularly rotten Brexit. It would take Scotland out of the EU, the single market and the customs union, which would be to the great detriment of the people of Scotland and would be against the will of the majority of them.

It is a deal that the Conservative Party here and at Westminster wants to ram through the United Kingdom Parliament, and it is a deal on which it will, apparently, now fight the forthcoming general election.

T he previous EU deal that was considered by the Scottish Parliament was rejected by 92 votes to 29. We concluded that it would be

“damaging for Scotland and the nations and regions of the UK as a whole”,

as the motion that we passed stated.

Nonetheless, the Conservative members of this Parliament voted in favour of that deal. They did so because, in their own words, they were satisfied that it would preserve their “precious Union”. So important was that red line to the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party that in the run-up to the deal’s being finalised by the then Prime Minister, Ruth Davidson and David Mundell wrote to her to say:

“We could not support any deal that creates a border of any kind in the Irish Sea and undermines the Union or leads to Northern Ireland having a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK, beyond what currently exists.”

Of course, they are now as much history as that deal is.

The current Tory front-bench spokesperson on the constitution, Adam Tomkins, went even further—as ever. In October last year, he wrote in the

Financial Times:

“From a Scottish Conservative and Unionist perspective, what goes for Northern Ireland must go for Scotland also. In particular there can be no separate Brexit deal for each of the nations that comprise the United Kingdom.”

He went on to say that

“No unionist could ever endorse”—

I repeat—“ever endorse”—

“any sort of differentiated deal”.

What a difference a year and a new Prime Minister make. What a difference the very survival of the Tory party makes to its members. Twelve months on, the deal includes the clearest possible “differentiated deal” for Northern Ireland, and it is a deal that will put Scotland at a serious disadvantage.

I understand the Brexit weariness of the people of Scotland—I feel it, too. They did not want a referendum on the EU in the first place. By a large majority, they voted against leaving, but that preference has been treated with contempt by the UK Government and the UK Parliament. Three years on, that contempt continues.

However—this is bad news—there is no way that the new deal would get the awful drawn-out and debilitating process of Brexit over and done with. If the Prime Minister were to get a majority for his withdrawal bill after the election, that would not end the uncertainty. It would merely unleash on the population fresh and ever more complex, ever more acrimonious, disputes. There would be more of Boris Johnson, more of Jacob Rees Mogg, and more of Nigel Farage. What an appalling prospect. There would be a veritable continuous Halloween of sneering antidemocratic horrors on our screens, for another year, or two, or three.

The withdrawal agreement bill envisages a future relationship with the EU that would be negotiated and ratified inside barely 12 months. That beggars belief. Even if the full option of a two-year extension to the transition period were to be taken up, a three-year period would be exceptionally fast for such a negotiation.

By comparison, the EU-Canada agreement took seven years to negotiate and the EU-Japan agreement took six years. A much more likely scenario is the UK crashing out of the transition period at the end of 2020 with no deal agreed, in order to satisfy the Brexit extremists in the Tory Party. That would mean years of economic stagnation, followed inevitably, at some point, by resumption of negotiations with the EU.

The regrettable truth is that Brexit chaos will continue to dominate UK politics for years and, possibly, decades to come, unless Scotland decides to put paid to that by ending Brexit for good. The only way to have done with Brexit is to have done with the very idea of leaving the EU—to do what Scotland did in June 2016, when it rejected Brexit, but to do it more forcibly, in an election and with a demand for us to have the right to choose to take our future into our own hands.

This afternoon, the Scottish Government is publishing an assessment of the impact of the latest withdrawal agreement and political declaration. The assessment concludes that what is being proposed is an even more damaging deal than the May deal that this Parliament rejected last year. Let me draw members’ attention to several elements in it.

The deal would take Scotland out of the single market—the largest and most lucrative market in the world. Membership provides Scotland’s businesses with unrestricted access to more than 510 million people. Last year, around 6,900 companies that operate in Scotland exported goods to the EU, and 11,000 companies here were reliant on imports from elsewhere in the EU.

The EU’s four freedoms—free movement of goods, services, capital and people—have for decades brought huge advantages to Scotland and the UK. The economic consequences of losing those advantages will be severe; in fact, the impact of a trade agreement of the type that the UK Government intends could lower Scottish gross domestic product by 6.1 per cent by 2030, compared to what it would be under EU membership. That is equivalent to a cost of £1,600 for each and every person in Scotland.

Just today, we have had further confirmation of the extraordinary cost of Brexit. A report from the highly respected National Institute of Economic and Social Research has found that the Tory deal will cost the UK £70 billion in the next 10 years. Moreover, to make things even worse, Scotland is now to be placed at a competitive disadvantage compared with Northern Ireland because of the special deal that the Tories said must never be struck.

The Scottish Government fully and unconditionally supports the Good Friday agreement, and we recognise the importance of maintaining an invisible border on the island of Ireland. We do not want to prevent Northern Ireland from benefiting from the special deal, but we could never accept that we should allow Scottish businesses to lose market share in the single market compared with their direct competitors in Northern Ireland. Economic growth in Scotland is already being damaged. Last week, the Fraser of Allander institute’s most recent economic commentary estimated that the Scottish economy is already about 2 per cent—£3 billion—smaller than it would have been without the vote to leave the EU.

The deal is also a threat to many of our vital rights and protections. The purpose of level playing field provisions in free trade agreements is to protect businesses in one country from deregulation in another that would distort the market. It is inevitable that the EU27 will require from the UK a more robust level playing field commitment than those that were acceptable for the likes of agreements with Canada and Japan. That is, in the greatest part, because the UK’s economic scale and geographic proximity make it far more of a risk to the EU marketplace as a competitor. The May deal recognised that, and agreed to inclusion of the level playing field protections within the legally binding withdrawal agreement, as part of the backstop arrangements that allowed for a closer relationship.

The Johnson Government has removed the protections from the withdrawal agreement and left only weaker references in the non-binding protocol. It says that it still respects the protections; however, that change can mean only that a more distant relationship is envisaged. Could anyone be taken in by such sleight of hand—particularly from people who have spent their entire political careers railing against those protections? Presiding Officer, the leopard does not change its spots.

The EU has played a hugely important role over decades in driving up standards for environmental protection and social and employment rights. There is no doubt that, in a few short years, all that work will have been for nothing as far as ordinary people in this country are concerned. We know that the Prime Minister is desperate to do a trade deal with Donald Trump that will open our markets to chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef, and which will, as we saw this week, damage our national health service by allowing drug prices to be driven up in order to fill American billionaires’ pockets.

Our devolved competences will be sidelined in that process and, as a result, our citizens will have their basic rights and protections eroded year on year. That is what the Conservatives in this chamber support.

There are more reasons to reject absolutely this so-called “great deal”. On population and migration, the deal will undermine the rights and wellbeing of the EU citizens who have chosen to make Scotland or the UK their home, and it will make it much more difficult to attract people from across the EU to visit, study, work and live here in the future.

Let us be clear: the UK Government should not be making EU citizens apply to maintain rights that they already have—but while it is doing so, it would be wisest for EU citizens to apply for and gain settled status. The UK Government should, in return, implement in UK law the commitments that it has made to protect EU citizens’ rights in the UK, as they are set out in the withdrawal agreement, and to do so without reference to the rest of the deal. That would be the fair and humane thing to do, and it would say loudly and clearly—as our First Minister did again last week—that we want EU citizens to continue to be valued members of our communities.

There is a practical reason for doing that—not doing so will discourage much-needed migration and will drive away people who are already here. In the scenario of there being 50 per cent less EU migration, our working-age population would decline by 1.9 per cent over the next 25 years, which would hit the economy, the national health service and social care very hard, especially in rural areas.

Let me make a final point about democracy and the constitution. The deal would give Northern Ireland the right to consent to any new arrangements, but would deny Scotland that right. That is democratically wrong. Moreover, in 2016 Scotland not only voted by a large majority to remain in the European Union, but we did so by a larger majority than did Northern Ireland. That choice has been, and continues to be, ignored and dismissed by the UK Government.

In July 2016 the former Prime Minister promised that she would not trigger article 50 until she thought that there was an agreed UK approach and objectives for negotiations. She helped to establish a new joint ministerial committee on EU negotiations, with terms of reference to

“seek to agree a UK approach” for negotiations. In March 2017, however, she sent the letter to trigger article 50 without the agreement of that joint ministerial committee: indeed, she sent the letter without the committee ever having seen it.

In January 2017, the Prime Minister had also, before any discussion could even be held in the JMC, dismissed our proposed compromise position, as set out in the first “Scotland’s Place in Europe” document.

That has been the pattern for the past three years. Not once has the UK Government sought to agree with the devolved Administrations the content of the withdrawal agreement or political declaration. In fact, our views have not been sought on a single paragraph of the more than 500 pages of text that were agreed with the EU—and the present Prime Minister has been even worse than the last. He does not even know or care how devolution works; in fact, he does not even know what his own Government is doing. When he was asked last week in the House of Commons whether he would allow the bill to pass without consent being given by the Scottish Parliament, he responded:

“the Scottish Parliament has no role in approving this deal.”—[

Official Report, House of Commons

, 23 October 2019; Vol 666, c 963.]

He was just wrong. In fact, his Government had already asked for legislative consent from this Parliament. It had to do so. Should that consent be refused, he will defy democracy if he overrules us and uses a power that has been used only once before, since devolution. Given the current party of Opposition, he will have to do the same in Wales. The majority of MPs in Wales, in Scotland, and even in Northern Ireland, oppose his deal. The Prime Minister has no democratic mandate to proceed. That fact alone should—but, alas, will not—stay the hands of the Tories in this chamber and make them think again.

The paper that we have published today sets out the scale of the damage that the Tories, here and at Westminster, want to inflict on Scotland. It demonstrates beyond doubt that the Tories, here and at Westminster, have nothing but contempt for the Scottish Parliament, Government and people. The Tories, here and at Westminster, are hell-bent on imposing on Scotland a so-called deal that will leave Scotland poorer, distant from our friends in Europe and vulnerable to trade bullying by Donald Trump, with workers’ rights and protections under threat and our environment trashed. We should never accept that: we will never accept that.

Scotland is a country that has enormous potential—one with talent, wealth, resources and cutting-edge industries. The people of Scotland have the right to determine our own future, free from the Brexit chaos that we see at Westminster every day. That future should be as an independent member of the European Union.

It is time that the people of Scotland were given the chance to have their say. That will happen, first of all, in an election on 12 December. Bring it on.