The impact of a hard Brexit on Scotland’s youth and the public in general could shape the country’s future. The lack of clarity within the Brexit negotiations is leading to a battle between Westminster and Holyrood, only worsened by Scotland’s missing seat at the negotiating table.
An Interview with Joan McAlpine and Rhianna Mallia
A 2017 report published by the Scottish Government overwhelmingly suggests that the Scottish public is concerned about Brexit. Polis member Rhianna Mallia wanted to find out whether this perspective has changed and if Scotland has gained more clarity about the potential impact of Brexit. And so she interviewed Joan McAlpine, an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament.
Hi Joan, have you got any more clarity about the issues raised since the report Brexit: what Scotland thinks was published a year ago?
I think the report raised a lot of important questions, but I don’t think that we’re any closer to being told how those questions are going to be resolved. Because we’ve still not been told what the end point is in terms of Brexit. I think the cabinet sub committee on Brexit had its first discussion on the end point just before Christmas. Michel Barnier (European Chief Negotiator for the UK exiting the EU) said recently that we know the transition is going to be a ‘status-quo’ transition, which is absolutely consistent with what he has said since he started talking about the transition. That status quo, if we don’t know what the end transition is, does that mean people are just given more time to prepare for a cliff edge? This would be the worst possible scenario.
How would you describe the more recent developments in the negotiations and their potential effect on businesses in the UK?
Our committee was in Ireland recently (January, 2018) and certainly we had a very useful meeting with the British-Irish chamber of commerce, where some businesses said they were planning to future proof themselves for a hard Brexit. What we’re seeing now over the last few days is that it’s highly political and it changes week to week. I think the EU is aware that the UK government is very unstable on this matter. What the UK government said that they’ve signed up to in the agreement in the first stage before Christmas isn’t necessarily deliverable.
There was lots in the report concerning the potential impact of Brexit on young people. What are your thoughts about the effects of Brexit on the Scottish higher education system and young people in general?
Since that report has come out, we have taken an evidence session on Erasmus+, and the number of institutions and young people that are going to be affected is considerable. Erasmus+ is the biggest exchange programme in the world and many people don’t understand that it involves apprentices, volunteers and further education students as well as university students. For all young people who had hoped to be funded with an Erasmus opportunity, there’s now a big question mark over the funding. We heard a lot of evidence that Erasmus+ is absolutely integral. You have to have free movement to operate as a member of Erasmus+, as opposed to just partnering up. When the Swiss voted against aspects of free movement, it had a very negative impact on aspects of their Erasmus programme.
Young people want freedom of movement in order to move around Europe freely, and the UK government has been pretty clear that they want to end freedom of movement. They just cannot accept that if they end freedom of movement, they end it for UK citizens as well as EU citizens. They (Westminster) seem to think that the UK can get special treatment, that it can discriminate against some people and it won’t have an effect on its own citizens.
So, Brexit will directly impact young people in terms of their opportunities?
Yes. Another issue that is very important is that we haven’t been told what’s happening to the structural funds that the UK gets from the EU. I think the Conservatives have said that the funds are going to continue until 2020. But after we leave, there is absolutely no indication of what’s happening to them. The EU funds are all about promoting equality. In the area of Scotland that I represent, a large part of the structural and social funds go towards things like college courses and employability schemes and basically addressing inequality. We’ve got no idea what’s going to replace those funds and that’s a big worry for young people, particularly those that are marginalised. The young people that are furthest from the labour market.
What other issues are you concerned about in relation to Scotland and Brexit?
Of course the possibility of a hard Brexit. That is what we could be looking at, being out of the single market completely and we could be looking at a ‘cliff-edge’ scenario. This would imply a enormous reduction in growth. It comes down to EU regulations and how the UK is subject to them after leaving the EU. The UK could maintain the same regulatory rules as Ireland, it would either be part of the European Court of Justice area for regulation or, like Norway, it would mirror the rest of Europe. That was what they (Westminster) promised in order to stop a border developing in Ireland. Now, that was the basis on which they moved on to the trade talks. If they have acted in bad faith, and they’ve got no intention of standing by that, then I could personally see the talks collapsing. I could see a really, really serious crisis emerging.
If you fall out with the EU, you go to the WTO to rewrite your schedules so that all your arrangements through the EU are carried on. Why on earth should the EU allow that to happen, when the EU is also a member of the WTO? There are other aspects like you cannot subsidise your farmers and have tariff free trade for farming that puts a question mark over all the promises that the Conservatives have made to the farming sector. It could be an absolute disaster.
Do you think that the current focus on Brexit is detracting from the day-to-day running of the Scottish government? And in particular, how is it affecting your job?
Well, I would say that the UK government is completely distracted with Brexit. There is just nothing getting done. All of the civil servant time is taken up by Brexit. Clearly that has an affect on every other aspect of government policy. However, we’re discussing the budget in the Scottish Parliament and we’ve proposed a very radical budget, which uses our tax powers in a very different and significant way in order to counter some of the austerity cuts that are coming from London. We’re going to be raising 75 million through tax, but we’re also reducing tax for some people and increasing it for the better off in order to fund public services, so that’s been a huge piece of work.
I think that the Scottish government, although we have naturally had to put resources into Brexit and basically trying to argue Scotland’s corner in Brexit, I think it’s not stopped them getting on with finding innovative ways to run and fund Scotland’s public services. At a UK level though, it’s very clear that the whole thing is in meltdown.
And then, in comparison to Wales and Northern Ireland, do you think Scotland and its MP’s are represented enough in the Brexit debate and the negotiations?
Scotland and Wales have had no input into the negotiations at all. The UK government has set up something called a Joint Ministerial Committee where there’s supposed to be engagement at a ministerial level. But there has been no meaningful engagement at all in terms of taking on board what Scotland said. We don’t have any representation at all. Northern Ireland kind of had influence through the DUP, but now even the DUP in Northern Ireland itself are concerned about the way Brexit negotiations are going.
The First Minister of Scotland and the First Minister of Wales wrote a joint letter to the UK government expressing their concerns at the way the EU withdrawal bill basically repatriates devolved powers and attacks the devolution settlement by taking powers that were devolved to Scotland and Wales back to the centre and gives ministers power to legislate in devolved areas. That is of deep concern. It covers farming and fishing, but it also covers areas like the environment. Scotland has been very progressive in terms of environment compared to other parts of the UK and there’s a real fear that whatever Michael Gove says, that environmental standards post-Brexit will fall. We don’t want that to happen in Scotland. But if they have this power grab and take environmental powers back, then our environmental standards will be under threat. We’re not round the table. They have deliberately chosen to squeeze us out and not represent our interests at all.
Do you think there’s going to be an announcement for another independence referendum in the coming year? And do you think this is the only way for Scotland to retain some sort of relationship with the EU?
Well, I think that’s a matter for the First Minister (Nicola Sturgeon). She has said that she’s going to wait and see what the outcome of the negotiations are and hope that a ‘good’ deal is on the table. The First Minister does have a mandate to call an independence referendum. It was in her 2016 manifesto, that if Scotland is dragged out of the EU against its will that there would be grounds to call one. However, it’s important that we don’t rush into things and that we think on what is in everyone’s best interests and that we make a judgement of the deal and how it’s going to affect Scotland, so that the people know what they are voting for.
Do you think there’s any other way for Scotland to retain some sort of relationship or partnership with the EU apart from leaving the UK?
Well, the Scottish government put that forward as an option. Maybe we’d have a differentiated relationship with Europe. Their first option was that the UK as a whole would remain a member of the single market and the customs union, and if failing that they proposed that there should be a differentiated solution for Scotland. That is perfectly possible had the UK government taken it on board, but they haven’t. So despite voting 62 percent in favour of remain, we’re being dragged out against our will.
It’s not in my hands. I hope the UK government will come to their senses. Recently, if you had spoken to Conservative colleagues, you would get the impression things are calming down (there was talk that we’re going to come up with fudge, so that we effectively remain in the single market and the customs union in all but name). Now, you’re getting people like Jacob Rees-Mogg and others being interviewed on TV saying “that’s not going to happen”.
It’s very, very difficult to say what the situation is going to be like in a year. It’s very unstable right now. All we can do in the Scottish government is continue to make the case for Scotland to remain a member of the single market, continue to build strong bilateral relationships with European countries and direct relationships with the Commission.
Joan McAlpine is a Scottish National Party member of the Scottish Parliament for the South Scotland region. She is a convener for the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee and a substitute member for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee.
This interview was conducted with the help of Polis member David Tschorr.
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