Edinburgh’s strategy for collaboration with the continent is a work in progressby Kirsty Hughes / February 25, 2020 / Leave a comment
On Brexit day, the Scottish government produced a jazzy new report offering its perspective on the European Union’s strategic agenda over the next five years. The report declared its hope that the EU will promote: democratic, progressive values in the world; well-being; innovation; and that it will rise fully to the challenges of the climate emergency. The report also succinctly summarised some of Scotland’s actions in these four broad priority areas.
Few would disagree with this within the EU—and the Scottish government’s stated vision sits easily within the EU’s own five-year agenda. As a piece of pro-European, Scottish promotion on Brexit day, it succeeded in setting a determinedly different picture of a pro-European Scotland compared to the rest of the UK.
But does the Scottish government really have a European strategy—and, if so, what is it for? Foreign policy, after all, is not devolved—it belongs to the UK government. But that doesn’t bar the Scottish government from developing international and European relations, not least in devolved areas ranging from the environment, agriculture, and fisheries to sport, education and the arts.
In a recent Scottish government reshuffle, Mike Russell added Europe and external affairs to his existing brief of cabinet secretary for constitutional affairs, a brief which already subsumed Brexit within it. And Holyrood has a Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee.
That’s all fine as far as it goes. But problems are easy to spot, not least post-Brexit. The upcoming UK-EU talks on the future relationship are going to further expose sharp differences between Edinburgh and Westminster, including over having a level-playing field on issues such as the environment and, too, in trying to come to a deal on fisheries—neuralgic in Scotland as elsewhere.
There are consultative structures for officials and ministers in the UK government and the three devolved administrations to talk to each other, including on the UK-EU talks. But these have functioned mostly rather badly since the Brexit vote—both under Theresa May and Boris Johnson, who has made things worse and more politicised. No one is holding their breath for the Scottish government to have serious influence on the UK-EU talks—or indeed on trade talks with the US and other countries.
Yet despite this unpromising context, the Scottish government does actually have a raft of policies for its relationship with Europe. On Brexit, it aims in theory to influence the UK government towards softer terms—improbable though everyone knows this is in practice.
But there are wider post-Brexit goals too. The Scottish government wants to stay aligned to EU laws in devolved areas, as far as possible—“dynamic alignment,” in the jargon of the current Brexit talks, is seen as a real positive in Scotland, in contrast to the Johnson government view of it as the devil incarnate.
Will this be possible? Both the Scottish and Welsh governments fell out badly with May’s government two years ago over what was seen, accurately enough, as a power grab of devolved powers back to Westminster in the Brexit context. This was partly resolved by restricting the potential power grab to a limited number of areas and setting a five-to-seven-year time limit for any such move. “Common UK frameworks” in parts of devolved policy areas such as agriculture and the environment are yet to be seen or agreed.
So perhaps the Scottish government will be able to match EU laws in some areas—though technically how it will consult with the EU on this is an open question. Some in Brussels even muse, rather over-optimistically, that if the Scottish government does this it might help put pressure on London over a level-playing field deal. More realistically, fears are expressed that if there’s no UK-EU deal, then the EU—and perhaps Scotland too—could face “climate-dumping” from the rest of the UK, if laxer standards give a competitive boost at the cost of combatting climate change.
The Scottish government, though, has a wider take than this again in its European goals. It has a long-standing office in Brussels and fairly new “hubs” located within the relevant British embassies in Berlin, Dublin and Paris (and London)—as well as other offices around the world. And its Brexit day “European Union strategic agenda” report commits the government to working hard at its bilateral EU relations, its multi-lateral international relations, and at its relations with London.
The Scottish government also has a series of European initiatives including a Nordic-Baltic policy statement to strengthen ties, and a policy to promote Scottish-Arctic connections, and is currently undertaking a review with the Irish government of Scottish-Irish relations, due to report soon.
What does this all add up to: is it essentially good intentions around a mixed bag of policy priorities, constrained by limited powers and resources? Up to a point, yes it is. But there is also a genuine effort in Scotland to promote and develop its wide-ranging European networks—many of which are led by civil society: universities, NGOs, business, cultural groups and more. And there is a serious concern to limit, if at all possible, the damage of Brexit.
Beyond this, unsurprisingly, is a set of political goals whereby the Scottish government hopes to pursue independence in the EU. It’s a sort of para-diplomacy, done in a mostly low-key way (a few high-profile speeches by Nicola Sturgeon aside)—partly low key, perhaps, because of a lack of a fully overarching European strategy, and partly through caution about trespassing into the foreign policy domain.
So Scotland does have a sort of European strategy. It’s partial, not entirely coherent and not very well resourced. But it’s growing not shrinking, both in its content and its ambitions. It reflects a European Scotland not a Brexit Scotland. And look out, then, for it clashing increasingly with Johnson’s vision of a Brexit UK.