Britain’s decision to invoke Article 50 by March 2017 has thrown the country into chaos, said Fiona Hyslop in an interview with EURACTIV. “The UK has lost an empire and has not managed to decide who and what it is yet over the last few decades and needs a new identity.”
Fiona Hyslop is Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, commonly referred to as the Culture Secretary. Her position covers culture, the arts, relations between the Scottish Government and the European Union and other international affairs.
Hyslop spoke to EURACTIV Editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti, in the margins of the Friends of Europe annual conference. She made her comments a few hours before the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon told the party conference in Glasgow that an Independence Referendum bill would be published next week.
Since Prime Minister Theresa May said that the UK will invoke Article 50 by March 2017, do you think there has been chaos or more certainty?
I think the situation is chaotic, as the only thing that is known now is the date Article 50 will be invoked.
They are doing that without a clearly set out plan for what they want to achieve, which has been fully formulated. To date, it certainly hasn’t involved Scotland or the other devolved administrations in the United Kingdom, despite the commitment from Theresa May that she would fully involve those administrations.
I think in terms of where we are now, there is still a lot of thinking and development to be done, but all that’s happened is that a closing window has been set. I’ve strongly argued that there needs to be sufficient time for preparations to be made before Article 50 is triggered, to make sure we can get the best conditions we can.
Which one is the best condition possible?
We think there are three routes that need to be explored: first, we need to convince the UK to get into the best position possible; the best position is of course to remain, but if that’s not the case and Brexit means Brexit, then we need the next best possible option and get the best deal for the UK as a whole.
If that’s not possible, then some kind of differentiated position, where there would be different positions for different parts of the UK.
The single market and freedom of movement mean a lot to us, so a differentiated position could be an option.
If that is not possible either, we have said that we would be prepared to present another bill for independence for Scotland.
Precisely on that point, is Scotland again on the path to independence now that there is a move towards a ‘hard Brexit’?
A lot of people, and not just from the SNP government, have been asking what type of country does the UK want to be.
Some of the language and the rhetoric to come out of the Conservative Party conference was very worrying indeed.
Freedom of movement is very important to us and we will stand up to xenophobia, even if it comes from the UK government.
Our primary concern is trying to convince the UK to be in the least worst option. If that’s not possible, then a differentiated position from Scotland is an option.
The road to independence is not our starting point on this matter. But if they propose something that is so against Scotland’s interests, then they themselves will be putting us in that position, where the only route option will be an independence referendum. They are playing a dangerous game.
So if they choose to go for hard Brexit…
Hard Brexit increases the risk for the UK that they will be responsible for changing the UK constitution.
So Scotland would then go for another referendum…
That is by no means certain, but it is on the table. We will make sure that the UK is aware of what they are risking. There is a lot to be done on communication and we have appointed a minister for negotiating with the UK on this relationship.
It’s a very important role because we are very conscious that we have to influence the UK. Within a week of the 23 June vote, I was before a parliamentary committee giving evidence on how this is a big opportunity a role for Scotland.
Those discussions have started. Now we have to hold Theresa May to her word after she came to Scotland first when she was elected.
If that’s to be seen as anything meaningful rather than just a gesture, then there has to be some substance to it.
There are very practical elements to Scotland, like our financial services, but also our own justice system. The UK, I think, is the only member state to have two justice systems.
We have been transposing legislation for many, many years and have been citizens of Europe for 40 years. We have control over agriculture, fisheries and environment. These are policies that are administered in Scotland, not in Westminster.
It’s a complex area to navigate. It’s not just about us either, the peace process in Ireland is also problematic, and a solution is going to have to found so there isn’t a return to a hard border. There need to be different positions that can be taken for different parts of the UK.
What kind of deal do you anticipate? No hard Brexit, no hard border. Do you already have a vision for the kind of agreement you wish?
It’s unprecedented. No one has tried to leave the EU before and we are in uncharted territory. It’s perfectly possible for the EU to be creative and flexible, it’s happened in different scenarios before.
Take Belgium for an example, there is a differentiated agreement in place there, showing it’s possible. We think that this could be an option for us too.
We didn’t want a leave vote, Scotland voted to remain, but we have already showed leadership. Our First Minister made clear our support for EU nationals, and that they feel welcome, because they contribute a lot.
Another part of our plan was establish a standing council of experts, comprised of former UK ambassadors and other diplomats, academics and scientists. They are helping us establish what kind of options could be available to us.
Your very first question was about whether we are currently in a chaotic situation. It is more or less chaos. What we are not seeing is rational, evidence-based policymaking.
I think that there is far too much irrationality and over enthusiastic optimism of a world that cannot be, especially from those who are in ministerial positions. There are three ministers who voted to leave as the three chief ministers in charge. But you also have people who voted to remain, becoming born-again Brexiteers, with an even more hard-line attitude.
The dialogue that has emerged after the vote is very worrying and we need to get back to rational policy-making, which is in the best interests of the UK. Scotland helped bring new enlightenment to the world and we believe reason must return to this debate.
This irrationality. It’s very indicative of the rapid changes going on in the world. The UK doesn’t seem to be able to cope with change. Does it? Are you confident that any roadmap they come up with will be fit to finding the proper arrangement?
I don’t know. We’ve been in government for ten years. People across the UK, not just in Scotland, have responded positive to the leadership role we have taken to this European issue. But I’m not responsible for the UK government, we can try an influence it, but that’s it.
But they have to try and find their sense of gravity. Maybe it’s a case of post-Empire syndrome, the UK lost an empire and it hasn’t managed to decide who or what it is yet. It hasn’t managed to do that over the last few decades. It needs to find a new identity.