England & Wales, Scotland Brexit, Democracy, devolution and governance

Brexit means Brexit – whatever that means

LGiU’s Janet Sillett considers the complexities that will ensue once the Brexit process is triggered – and what that could mean for Scottish local government and their communities.

I am not going to argue here for a speedy Brexit – with article 50 invoked this year, or indeed for a long delayed one. Nor for a second referendum to vote on the eventual deal reached- because individual readers will have their own views.

But I do want to briefly discuss the process. What is happening? What could happen? There were lots of dire warnings during the referendum campaign about the collapse of the economy or entering the sunlit uplands as a result of a Brexit vote – depending on your perspective (I exaggerate here but the point is made) – however, there was very little about the complexities of a Brexit result. Our briefing here (members) set out the formal position. It is, of course, more difficult than the formalities – it’s highly political and contentious.

No-one knows when article 50 will be invoked.

It isn’t clear either whether article 50 needs to go through the UK parliament or whether it can be invoked by the UK Prime Minister. According to the Guardian, Theresa May has reportedly also been told by government lawyers that she is not obliged to hold a parliamentary vote on the decision to leave the EU before triggering article 50. Half a dozen different lawsuits claiming the contrary are currently before the high court where they will be heard in October, with a supreme court hearing likely some time in December.

We do know there are different views in the UK government about the objectives of the negotiations and when to trigger article 50. It was never going to be quick – there were no detailed plans made for a Brexit result. And crucially there needs to be agreement in government of what it wants to achieve before the formal negotiations start; how to reconcile the objectives of having access to the single market with a position on free movement which can be acceptable.

We’re not even talking about one set of negotiations here – exiting the EU will require negotiating not just one deal, but six – including Britain’s legal separation from the EU; a free trade agreement (FTA) and accession to full membership of the WTO.

So nothing is simple, and for UK local government there are huge uncertainties ahead, particularly relating to EU legislation and how local services are affected. To take another important issue – free movement. Both the UK government and the rest of the EU will want to maximise the best deal for their own citizens – will citizen rights become a bargaining tool? The implications for English local government and Scotland and Wales are very serious, especially in relation to the public sector workforce, health and care workers especially. There are 52,000 NHS workers who are EU non British nationals and many thousands working in care services. Nicola Sturgeon, has said it was “disgraceful” that the UK had not guaranteed the right of EU nationals to remain. She called for a guarantee as she hosted a question and answer session with hundreds of EU nationals, many of them concerned about whether they would have the right to live and work in Scotland when the UK leaves the EU.

What about funding, infrastructure and major projects? There have been some positive messages from government – with some funding guaranteed for current structural and investment projects, as long as they are agreed before the autumn statement later this year, but if a project obtains EU funding after that the Treasury will decide whether funding should be guaranteed by the UK government. But this is only a very partial reassurance – £5.3 billion of EU regeneration funding up to 2020 is at stake.

Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution, Derek Mackay, said the announcement “falls far short” of what is needed, saying: “A limited guarantee for some schemes for a few short years leaves Scotland hundreds of millions of pounds short of what we would receive as members of the EU.” The Scottish government decision to redirect £100 million from a budget underspend last year to help cushion the economy from the impacts of a post-EU referendum downturn reflects the concerns about the possible impact on the Scottish economy of Brexit. But it is not going to compensate for the loss of structural funding.

However uncertain the process of leaving the EU is, local government and the governments in Wales and Scotland need much more certainty than this – will we get it in the Autumn Statement?

So what can local government do? I’d say now is the time to be making our voice heard as loudly as possible – as a solution to some of the challenges and not as yet another problem. Did Brexit reflect disillusionment with Westminster and Holyrood politics? Yes – to some extent. However we must remember Scotland voted to remain in the EU. Devolving powers and responsibilities must be a partial answer to that – powers from Europe and from national governments. Strong local and sub national government can strengthen regional growth – helping to break down the divisions reflected in the Brexit results across the UK. And it is in local communities where we can start to heal the divisions that emerged during the campaign and immediately afterwards.

Brexit is now dominating Scottish politics – as it is in the rest of the UK. Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon’s key Brexit tests for protecting Scotland’s relationship with the EU – to protect Scottish domestic and economic interests to ensure Scotland has influence in shaping crucial decisions, and to maintain social solidarity – could also be the tests for protecting the interests of local government in the relationship between the Scottish government, local government and the EU in the negotiations to come?

The First Minister has said this – “We can seek to find – or create – a solution that enables Scotland’s distinctive voice to be heard and our interests to be protected within the UK”. It is up to Scottish local government to make sure that the distinctive voice of Scottish local government is also very clearly heard.