UK negotiations on Brexit: minister's speech

The Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe addresses Scottish Parliament on UK negotiations on EU exit.

Presiding Officer

The fifth round of the Phase One negotiations on EU exit concluded on 12 October. Today provides an opportunity to set out the Scottish Government's assessment of progress on the EU-UK negotiations which have taken place to date.

It also allows this Parliament to consider the process of EU Withdrawal and to express its concerns about some recent developments.

The context for so doing remains very clear and should be stated at the outset of every debate about Brexit in Scotland.

Scotland did not vote for Brexit and opinion polls indicate that Scotland would still not vote for Brexit – indeed it is likely that it would be rejected by an even wider margin.

And Scotland's best interests – and the best interests of all who live and work here - would be served by remaining in the EU.

That point was emphasised in the media yesterday, following analysis by the LSE on the economic consequences of Brexit. This presented some stark figures for Scotland, even from a so called "soft" Brexit. Their calculations showed that over five years Edinburgh would lose £3.2bn from such a Brexit, Glasgow would lose £2.9bn and Aberdeen would lose £2.4bn.

But if there was a "no deal" Brexit the figures go from dreadful to catastrophic. Glasgow down £5.4bn. Edinburgh £5.5bn, Argyll & Bute £350 million, and Aberdeen – the worst hit by percentage in the country – £3.8bn.

The economic, social and reputational damage of such an outcome would inflict would be excessive, unwarranted - and unwanted.

So the first conclusion this chamber needs to draw is that no deal is a no deal. It cannot and must not happen.

It is foolish for the UK Government to use such a threat even as a negotiating tactic. Things are bad enough without that.

Let us then look at the state of the negotiations.

There has been some small progress in the last few weeks, dependent it appears on the Prime Minister, as she indicated in her Florence speech, at last being willing to show a modicum of flexibility. Though negotiations are about dialogue, not about speeches.

But considerable challenges remain for the UK.

And the devolved administrations face additional problems as a result of the UK Government's failure to abide by the agreed terms of reference of the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations.

None the less – and I want to be as positive as I can – I do want to pay tribute to the attempts by the new First Secretary of the UK Government, Damien Green to improve that situation. I am also grateful to my colleague John Swinney for his involvement, and I am pleased to be able to tell the chamber that all the parties in this Parliament have been able to have constructive discussion about the EU Withdrawal Bill, and I hope that such dialogue on Brexit matters will continue.

It is encouraging that most of us have been able to agree on the motion in front of us today.

Presiding Officer, on the matter of the Withdrawal Bill I can also report that at last week's reconvened JMC (EN) meeting some progress was made in agreeing general principles that should ensure the role of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Parliaments and Governments in any potential UK wide frameworks.

However, I want to be clear that the Scottish Government remains unable to recommend the Scottish Parliament consent to the EU Withdrawal Bill as currently drafted, and the same is true of the Welsh Government.

Neither will be in a position to recommend consent until the bill is amended in keeping with the joint amendments now tabled at Westminster. These amendments ensure that the devolved settlement is respected, not undermined.

Let me turn now to the wider question of the negotiations between the UK and the EU.

The first round began on 19 June, with the fifth round concluding on 12 October.

Yet despite all the talking, last week the European Council did not agree that there had yet been 'sufficient progress' to allow a move from exit discussions to consideration of transition and future relationship.

Instead the Council called on the negotiators to make more progress on outstanding issues including in relation to citizens' rights and the financial settlement.

However, in a positive gesture the EU27 have empowered Michel Barnier to make internal preparations for that second phase.

The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU – always an optimist – asserted at the conclusion of the fifth round talks that 'we have come a long way'. But even he could not avoid the fact that, in his own words, 'there is still work to be done.'

It is the 'work that is still to be done' that remains my concern. The clock is ticking and it is vital that there is certainty for both individuals and businesses now.

Businesses are making planning decisions now for 2020 and beyond; and citizens of other EU Member States need to plan their futures and they will either leave the UK or choose not to locate here based on the rights they will have, and the welcome they receive.

Presiding Officer, It is simply unacceptable that there is still so much uncertainty surrounding the rights of EU Citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in other EU countries after Brexit. It is disappointing that in her open letter to EU citizens the Prime Minister was still not able to give more clarity.

The Scottish Government has repeatedly called for assurances that EU citizens would have their rights protected in the place that they choose to call their home. As we have continually stressed, EU citizens and their families make a vital contribution to Scotland, not only to our economy and demography, but also to our culture and society. They must feel at home here.

Of course we welcome the commitment by the Prime Minister to ensure that the system of applying for settled status will be streamlined and straightforward, and that those already holding permanent residency will be easily able to exchange this for settled status. We believe that settled status should be granted free of charge. The First Minister has made clear that if a fee is imposed on EU citizens, as a minimum - the Scottish Government will meet the cost for EU nationals working in our public services.

However, there remain a number of key issues, which impact on the daily lives of EU citizens, that are still to be resolved.

We urge the UK Government to reach agreement immediately with the EU27.

Let me now consider transition, and again I am pleased that the Prime Minister recognised the need for a transition period in her Florence speech despite she and her ministers ruling it out on every possible occasion up until then. It is good they recognise that was the wrong approach.

At the very minimum a substantial transitional period is essential to give people and businesses the certainty that they require to get on with their lives and work.

However, we still need clarity from the UK Government on how it will work in practice. Mixed messages on issues such as membership of CAP and CFP and coded remarks about "some parts" taking less time are not helping anyone except perhaps the extreme Brexiteers.

The substance of the transition must be clear, as must the long term destination. Confusion about these and other issues simply adds to the overall atmosphere of chaos.

The UK is due to exit the EU on 29 March 2019, but the UK Government is not only still mired in phase one negotiations, but also cannot seem to decide what route it is asking to take after that in order to avoid the cliff edge.

As a result, confusion reigns amongst businesses, investors and the public, exacerbated by the stream of contradictions and mixed messages that flow from the internal divisions of the UK Government.

Presiding Officer, considering all that and reading the Government's own negotiating and position papers it is little wonder that so many – the Scottish Government certainly but a growing number in this country and outwith it - firmly believe that full EU membership remains the best possible option for this country and our economy.

That is what we want – now if possible, later if necessary. And in the interim if we find ourselves having to be dragged out, then we wish and will continue to argue for continued membership of the European Single Market and the EU Customs Union not as transition but as destination.

Many others have moved, or are moving to that position too, and we urge all parties who are not there yet – and particularly the UK Government - to recognise that this is the only way of avoiding severe damage.

There would still be damage. We see that from the LSE analysis. But less under this scenario than any other.

This month the Scottish Government published 'What's at Stake for Businesses?' - a collection of commentaries from companies with real and deep concerns about the consequences of the UK's decision to leave the EU.

The document highlights the importance of the outcomes reached in the UK-EU negotiations, and the very real issues at stake for stakeholders. I would commend it to every member.

Later we will publish a parallel document about individual citizens concerns.

Presiding Officer,

The Scottish Government and this Parliament has a legitimate interest in both the terms of withdrawal, including transition, and the overall shape of the future relationship.

Many of the things we do and the responsibilities we have will be profoundly affected by withdrawal, by transition and by any negotiated future relationship.

It is therefore highly regrettable that the UK Government has acted in direct contradiction to the terms of reference of the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) by publishing a series of papers that purported to set out a 'UK position' without prior engagement with the devolved administrations.

Some of those papers largely ignore the Scottish dimension. Some mention it in passing without any detail. At least one seems to have been drafted in complete ignorance of the existence of a separate Scottish Legal System and Scottish responsibility for, amongst other things, a separate prosecution and police system, an independent Lord Advocate and involvement in extradition and international justice co-operation, issues that long predate the UK's membership of the EU.

I have made it clear to David Davis and Damien Green that I remain deeply concerned that the Scottish Government's views were not taken into consideration in the development of these papers. The EU can put no reliance on commitments entered into as a result of the presentation of partial or simply wrong information by the UK and that should not be happening.

There is no reason why the Scottish Government's position should not be fully reflected in any and all negotiating or position papers, and in the UK Government's current and future negotiating positions.

It is therefore absolutely essential that the UK Government involve - in a new and fundamental way - the Scottish Government in any further developments on EU exit and in the next phase of negotiations and we indicated that to the JMC (EN) meeting which was held in London last Monday.

I welcome the fact that it has at last been reconvened. As I have indicated that meeting set a positive tone for further engagement – but tone must translate into substance.

I took the opportunity in that meeting to press the UK Government on the issues I have touched on today.

Going forward, it is vital that the JMC (EN) is utilised in the spirit it was created: that is, for regular engagement between the UK Government and the devolved administrations.

This is the space in which the devolved administrations ought to be heard, which would help us reach a true UK-wide position. We must ensure that is at the heart of what we do.

Over the past 14 months (to the day) as Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland's Place in Europe, I have welcomed the support and challenge from this parliament and its committees.

It is now more crucial than ever that our collective and unified voice is heard, that the threat to devolution is faced with solidarity and that we are clear together that Scotland's interests in our future relationship with Europe cannot be ignored.

I therefore move the motion in my name in the hope that it will attract the support of the whole chamber.


Email: – Central Enquiry Unit

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