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If the UK’s contortions over Brexit were portrayed in art form, something by Hieronymus Bosch might provide a useful model.

(Photo: John Cooke)

At the time of writing, British MPs have voted twice (possibly more by the time you read this) to reject the deal that Theresa May’s Government agreed with the EU last November; they have also voted not to leave the EU without any deal; and to ask the EU for a delay to the UK leaving the EU under ‘Article 50’. And while all these votes were ‘meaningful’, none is legally binding. Meanwhile, the UK’s proposals for tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit would likely breach WTO rules, according to Phil Hogan, the EU’s Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner.

So, what does Scotland – where 62% of voters opted to remain within the EU – make of all this?

Her universities, and her life sciences and digital industries, all of which are instinctively international in outlook, were never keen on leaving.

The agricultural sector was more divided, but relies heavily on seasonal workers from the EU. Scotland’s farmers say that the number of visas for such workers in a proposed UK-wide scheme isn’t enough. That could see soft fruit rotting in the fields for lack of anyone to pick it.

Scotch Whisky, as well as being Scotland’s national drink, has an export value of around £4.7Bn per annum. Without it, the UK’s trade deficit would be 3% worse than it is. Brexit could threaten that, as the protection given to Scotch in some countries is the result of agreements negotiated by the EU.

People in the oil and gas industry seem more relaxed: Brexit is just one more uncertainty among many. However, some worry about delays in the supply chain for equipment used on offshore platforms or in subsea vehicles, while EU nationals comprise about 7% of its workforce. And independent academic research calculates that Aberdeen, the ‘oil capital of Europe’, would see the largest reduction in output, measured by gross value added, of any UK city as a result of Brexit.

Scotland’s east coast fishermen – no fans of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) – were vociferous for leaving the EU. But Scotland’s fish processors, who account for nearly half the UK industry, saw how Norway’s industry declined because of EU tariffs, and fear a similar fate if they don’t have full access to EU markets.

The case of 87 year-old grandmother, Tove MacDonald, has highlighted the plight of EU citizens in Scotland, which seems more open to free movement of people than other parts of the UK. Born in Copenhagen, Mrs MacDonald moved to Scotland in 1960, married a Scotsman, and has been here ever since. She tearfully told reporters how she couldn’t understand why the UK Home Office – not known as a beacon of compassion – had told her to register to stay in the land that’s been her home for 59 years.

What all this means for Scotland’s political landscape remains to be seen, especially on the question of independence, which is the major fault-line in Scottish politics.
Independence supporters point to how 26 other member states have stood solidly with Ireland – with less than one percent of the total EU population – in the negotiations, contrasting this with what they see as Theresa May’s ‘dismissive’ attitude to Scotland. They also highlight that in the European Union, a single, small member state can veto a policy it does not like – the extension to Article 50, for example; whereas in the UK Union, Scotland has no such veto over UK policy that would damage its interests.

Whether they will be able to persuade those who opted to stay in the UK in 2014, but to remain in the EU in 2016, to vote for independence now, is far from certain. Some have made that journey, but equally, some who voted to leave the UK in 2014, also voted to leave the EU. And those against independence claim the difficulty in negotiating Brexit shows the difficulty in disentangling political unions.

The Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, once said, “prediction is difficult, especially about the future”. That’s true of many things, but particularly of Brexit.

John Cooke

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