1. It is now well over two years since the EU referendum and less than six months until the UK will leave the European Union. Despite having stalled for two years in setting out what they want from Brexit, the UK Government seems determined to present us with a false choice between two alternatives: no-deal or a withdrawal agreement with the EU that will see the UK depart with little more than the promise of a future relationship in a high-level political declaration, giving no meaningful detail. Despite its rejection by the EU27, the UK Government insists that this future relationship will be based on the Chequers proposal, or a close variant, that will inflict significant and lasting damage on Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
2. While any progress to break the deadlock in the negotiations is welcome, it is clear that any recent progress relates only to the UK's withdrawal from the EU. Meaningful discussion around the crucial issue of the future UK-EU relationship on the other hand remains very limited, and is likely to remain so while the UK Government sticks to the core elements of its Chequers proposal. So, while the potential for some agreement to be reached on the backstop proposal may allow the UK to withdraw from the EU, the nature of the future relationship will remain fundamentally unclear. Consequently, Scotland will be removed from a hugely beneficial relationship with the EU without any promise of how these benefits may be retained or replaced in future.
3. This is partly the consequence of the UK Government adopting unrealistic and counterproductive red lines that, as has been clear from the outset, were never going to be negotiable with the EU and serve only to limit the options available to us. These red lines on the nature of the future relationship render free and frictionless trade with our main international trading partner impossible after we have left the EU. In part too it is a result of the poor management of the negotiations by the UK Government. Such has been the failure of handling that three out of four people think that the UK Government is handling Brexit badly. The UK now faces the prospect of a blindfold Brexit where key decisions regarding our future relationship with the EU have not been taken and will be played out during a further period of negotiation with the EU that will last at least two years and most likely longer and during which the UK will be in an even weaker negotiating position than now.
4. This is not what the public was promised. When the Prime Minister set out the UK Government's strategy in the Brexit negotiations at Lancaster House in January 2017: she assured the public that by late 2018 there would be both a withdrawal agreement securing a transition period and an agreement on a detailed proposition setting out the future relationship between the UK and EU, a relationship that would then be implemented during a transition period.
5. However at this late stage, and notwithstanding progress that some suggest may have been made in recent days, neither is guaranteed. This is not acceptable, and it is certainly not inevitable. Even at this stage there are other possible options - perfectly achievable options - to avoid the very worst effects of Brexit. These would provide the basis of a future relationship that minimises the cost of Brexit and creates relative stability for businesses, communities and for people who would otherwise suffer the very real consequences of a chaotic and/or 'blindfold' exit from the European Union. This paper will review these options.