- Scotland’s Brexit minister Michael Russell believes the Irish border issue could see the UK remain in the EU single market.
- If May keeps Northern Ireland in the single market, “there are compelling reasons why that should be the case for Scotland and indeed for the rest of the UK,” he told Business Insider.
- He also said Downing Street’s “unusual” tactics in the first year of negotiations would “eventually come to grief” because the government had refused to make serious commitments in key areas.
- “So far it’s been evasion and fudge. I would describe it as putting it off the evil hour. Eventually, the hour will come,” he said.
LONDON – Theresa May’s inability to solve the Irish border dilemma could see the whole of the UK remain permanently in the single market and customs union, according to Scotland’s Brexit minister.
“It is very difficult to see a solution for example in Northern Ireland without continuing membership of the single market and the customs union,” Michael Russell MSP told Business Insider.
“If that is the case for Northern Ireland, there are compelling reasons why that should be the case for Scotland and indeed for the rest of the UK. It makes a great deal more sense,” he said.
Russell spoke to BI in the week that marked the one-year anniversary of Prime Minister May triggering Article 50, the two-year withdrawal process of Britain leaving the European Union.
He said Downing Street’s “unusual” tactics in the first year of negotiations would “eventually come to grief,” because the government had refused to make serious commitments in key areas, including on Northern Ireland and on fishing rights.
“There has to be a moment in which things are decided,” he said.
“So far, it’s been evasion and fudge. I would describe it as putting off the evil hour. Eventually, the hour will come. The government will have to accept the unreality of their position.”
May’s Irish dilemma
The most significant problem May has yet to resolve in exit negotiations is the Irish border issue. Peace between north and south Ireland – which is enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – could be endangered if a border emerged between the two countries once Northern Ireland leaves the EU along with the rest of the UK.
To that end, the UK and EU have agreed that no border, infrastructure, or customs posts will emerge between the countries after Brexit. But as the Republic of Ireland will remain in the EU after Brexit, many including the Scottish government believe the best and perhaps only solution to avoid a border is for Northern Ireland to remain in the single market as well.
If that happened, Russell said, there would be “compelling reasons” for the rest of the UK to remain in the single market, and he said public opinion was moving in that direction.
“The Scottish government’s view is that continuing membership of the single market is essential. We need to achieve it, and opinion has moved that way in the last year, certainly regarding the customs union. I think it will move that way on the single market as we go through a transition phase.”
For its part, Downing Street insists it will find a solution to the border which avoids the need for Northern Ireland to keep full regulatory alignment with the EU, something May is desperate to avoid.
But Russell echoed warnings from senior academics that solution does not appear currently to exist.
“I don’t see a resolution [for Ireland] that does not have continued regulatory alignment,” he said. “The people I speak to do not see a solution apart from that.”
“Any other intentions would unravel”
Offering the example of agriculture, Russell said that the requirement for Northern Ireland to keep the same rules as the Republic of Ireland in order to avoid border checks of livestock and produce would leave Northern Ireland with no option but to retain the EU’s agricultural framework. That, in turn, would mean the rest UK was compelled to retain it.
“If you look at the frameworks on agriculture and Northern Ireland remained in complete regulatory alignment with Ireland, which is in the EU, then any framework you established that involved Northern Ireland would have to be the same.
“Essentially Scotland, Wales, and England would have to be in complete regulatory alignment with Northern Ireland, which was in regulatory alignment with the EU. That creates circumstances in which any other intentions would unravel.”
If you go any further than that, you do some pretty terrible things to the economy
May has repeatedly stated her intention to leave the single market and customs union once Britain leaves the EU and completes a transition phase, and insists that the Northern Ireland issue will not derail those commitments.
The Scottish government, meanwhile, is bidding to keep Scotland in the single market because they say it would cause the least economic damage – a conclusion also reached by the UK government’s own Brexit impact assessment.
“Single market membership is essential to avoid the worst of the damage [from Brexit],” Russell said.
“That’s not to say there won’t be damage. But if you go any further than that, you do some pretty terrible things to the economy.”
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