Nicola Sturgeon has accused the UK Government of “ignoring Scotland’s voice” on Brexit. I’m not sure what else the First Minister can expect given that she spent the past six months making demands she knows can never be met. The Scottish Government intervened in Miller on flimsy grounds in the futile hope of securing a veto for Scotland over the UK’s exit from the European Union – knowing full well (as, I think, likely every lawyer in the country did too) that they stood absolutely no chance of success.
Similarly, the First Minister has peddled the myth that it would be possible for some kind of special deal to be struck that would allow Scotland to remain in the EU/EEA/EFTA/single market (these have been used interchangeably). But such a deal is not possible, as I have articulated before. This is for three reasons.
The first, is international law. Scotland is not a sovereign state – it has no legal personality. As Scotland is not an actor in international law, it cannot enter into treaties with other countries. There is no non-independent region in the world (save, possibly, for the Emirates) with the powers that would be necessary to participate in participate in an international organisation like the EEA.
The second hurdle is domestic, and significant. Since early cases such as Costa v ENEL, it has been clear that single market rules are supreme, and rank above all other forms of domestic law. While this wouldn’t pose any problem where Scotland’s devolved competences are concerned, it’s not clear what would happen should single market rules come into conflict with the powers reserved to Westminster. Of course, the UK could devolve those powers necessary for Scotland’s participation in the single market – the trouble is that’s basically all the powers: full fiscal autonomy; regulation of all markets (financial services, energy, telecoms, etc); immigration, naturalisation, and citizenship; competition law; employment law; product standards; consumer protection – to name but a few. Were this to happen, there would be little left of the United Kingdom, save for a currency union and a defence pact. Scotland would be, de facto, independent.
The third problem is EU/EEA law based, and is possibly even more challenging. The EU/EEA’s institutions are designed for independent sovereign states. There is no provision in the treaties for the participation of a non-sovereign territory. Two years ago the worst case scenario was that an independent Scotland would have to follow the EU’s accession procedures set out in Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. However, when compared to what would be required for a non-independent Scotland to join the EEA the accession process looks like a breeze. Nothing short of substantial changes to the EU and EEA treaties would be necessary to accommodate a non-sovereign Scotland. Even if Scotland could persuade the EU institutions to go along with this, Scotland still comes up against the same brick wall as it would have done post-independence, which is states with their own secessionist movements such as Spain and Belgium. If Scotland gets to participate in the EEA/EU without independence, you can guarantee that Catalonia, the Basque Country, Flanders, and Wallonia (just for starters) will want the same. You can also guarantee that Spain and probably Belgium would veto it – as is their right.
The opposition needs to call out this daft idea for what it is: a complete fabrication designed to stoke the flames of grievance.
It’s clear that the SNP has no interest in securing the “best deal for Scotland” when the only proposals they have thus far made are manifestly impossible. A far more constructive approach would be to lay dibs on the powers being repatriated from Brussels that they believe would be best exercised in Scotland. Agriculture and Fisheries would obviously be top of the wish list. The devolution of labour law and company law would allow Scotland to take a different path from the race to the bottom that the Government in London seems keen to pursue. While absent concerns about compliance with EU law, VAT is one of the best candidates for further fiscal devolution.
If Nicola Sturgeon truly wants the best deal for Scotland she should stop the shadow boxing and start drawing up a wish list that’s actually deliverable.