Since the United Kingdom made the decision to leave the European Union (EU) on 23rd June this year, much attention has been given to the different ways in which constituent parts of the UK voted, showing as they did stark contrasts between Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar (which voted to remain) and England and Wales (which voted to leave).

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, and her devolved government, have placed considerable emphasis on the fact that 62% of voters in Scotland cast their vote to remain in the EU, whereas overall in the UK only 48% voted to do so. This has created a political narrative, promoted mainly by the governing Scottish National Party, that a democratic deficit has been created in Scotland and that there is a consequent need to “preserve Scotland’s status” in the EU. Those in Scotland and the wider UK who voted to leave the EU make the counter-point that the UK is the EU member state, not Scotland. Scotland voted in 2014 to remain part of the UK and is a constituent part of the member state itself; it therefore follows that if the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU, there is in fact no such democratic deficit in Scotland.

The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, has indicated that she will not consider triggering Article 50 (read our article "What is Article 50" here) until there is an agreed “UK approach”, backed by all of the home nations. This, together with the First Minister’s approach outlined above, has, perhaps inevitably, led to much commentary on what involvement the Scottish Government will have in the Brexit process and what the impact on the devolution settlement in Scotland might be after Brexit.

European and External Relations Committee

In the wake of Mrs May’s indication that there will be involvement from all UK nations in the Brexit process, the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee published its first report of the new session of the Scottish Parliament on 12th September. The contents of the report can be found here. The work of this Committee during the current session will be of vital importance to the shaping of the Scottish Government’s approach to any involvement in the Brexit negotiations and touches on the possibilities for consequent revision of the devolution settlement in Scotland. Its reports will be sent both to the UK and Scottish Governments, in the hope that attention will be paid to the evidence gathered from stakeholders in Scotland. Areas on which evidence has already been taken include the potential loss of access to the single market and the role of Scotland in the Article 50 negotiations. One of the key conclusions of the report is that access to the single market and the lack of tariff and non-tariff barriers are important priorities for the Scottish Government in its discussions with the UK Government prior to Brexit.

The Scotland Act(s)

A crucial point on which the report touches is the possibility, after Brexit, of the widening of the scope of competences which are presently devolved to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Acts but which overlap with competences governed by the EU under the EU treaties. These include such areas of competence as agriculture, fisheries and the environment. It is therefore currently the case, for example, that while fisheries policy is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) sets quotas for the amount and type of fish which may be caught in Scottish waters. On leaving the EU, fisheries policy could be controlled entirely by the Scottish Parliament, and Scottish fishermen would no longer need to abide by the CFP. Brexit could therefore, it may be argued, lead to a stronger and more powerful Scottish Parliament, requiring the devolution settlement in Scotland to be revisited to take account for any such “repatriated” powers.

There are, inevitably, very different views on the consequences of Brexit for Scotland. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, in its evidence to the Committee, views Brexit as “a once in a lifetime opportunity” which offers “systemic change in the restoration of our exclusive economic zone with regard to fisheries”. Other stakeholders, whose evidence is recorded in the report, are more circumspect; others still are pessimistic, with Edinburgh Airport Ltd expressing the concern that “it is possible that the UK’s decision to leave gives the message that we wish to be isolationist”. None, at this stage, can claim to know what the consequences will be, and it is clear that much will still depend upon the scope and nature of the negotiations which take place between the UK and EU during the Brexit process.