Theresa May’s uncompromising Brexit plans are a major cause of concern for the UK’s devolved governments. The “hard Brexit” backlash is particularly evident in Scotland, with fights between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament over access to Europe, as well as who controls the powers currently held by Brussels, set to leave a major question mark over the UK’s future direction of travel.
The result of last June’s EU referendum in Scotland was unequivocal: A clear majority of Scottish people wished to remain. Because of this Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is demanding that the Tories take Scotland’s wish for a “soft Brexit” into account. Sturgeon is also insisting that Scotland remain part of the single market, even if the rest of the UK leaves. If no compromise is found, the Scottish government is likely to call another independence referendum.
Holyrood and London are also set to clash over the transference of powers and laws from Brussels to the UK, an issue that could also have serious consequences for devolution.
As part of the EU the UK’s farming, fisheries and environmental policies are set by Brussels. This will change in 2019, but it is unclear whether those powers will go to the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland or be managed centrally in Westminster.
The Scottish National Party has already made its position in one area clear. Sturgeon says it is “vital” that Scottish farming polices are set in Holyrood, telling that National Farmers Union it would be “the best way of ensuring that future decisions on farming reflect Scotland’s distinct priorities”.
While the UK government has not ruled out the devolution of newly acquired powers, using agriculture as a potential example, it has also said that any agreement must work “for the whole of the UK”.
There are two main problems in finding an agreement that works for both the devolved governments and Westminster. The first is money, with the likelihood that if the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments control their own farming policies they will press for the UK Treasury to fund a replacement of the EU Common Agricultural Policy.
The second problem arises from the fact that devolved powers could jeopardise the UK government’s ability to form trade agreements with states outside of the EU. For instance other countries are likely to seek universal access to the UK market for their agricultural products, but such deals may not be possible if each devolved government has the power to set completely different farming policies.
The devolved administrations have made it clear that they feel the UK government is ignoring them over Brexit. The repatriation of powers from Brussels will have massive implications for devolution settlements and the future of the UK as a whole.
The Prime Minister needs to make room for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland before the issue becomes a quagmire.