April 29, 2021

Europe

UK: The union’s future in spotlight

BY Carsten Nickel

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( 5 mins)
  • European Parliament approval and the formal sign-off by EU member states marked the final stage in the ratification of the post-Brexit trade agreement.
  • But the simultaneous resignation of Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster highlights the Brexit-related challenges around the future of the union.
  • Next week’s Scottish regional election will further increase the pressure, but as discussed in the past, a quick Scottish independence referendum remains unlikely.

Scotland

With the elections in Scotland only a week away, the polls are fairly static with no party experiencing a dramatic change in fortune. The Nationalists (SNP) remain comfortably ahead and will remain in government with an anticipated 60-70 seats in the 129-seat parliament. The signpost to watch is whether the SNP will get the 65 seats required for an overall majority or whether they will have to rely on the Greens to provide an overall majority in favor of a second independence referendum. The Scottish Tories have a solid base of unionist support at around 21% and Labour are just behind in third place. The new Labour leader Anas Sarwar is improving his ratings and favorability, but that is not yet translating into higher support for his party. The Greens are doing well and are likely to win more seats in the regional list vote.

It is unclear whether the rows in the UK over lobbying, the funding of the refurbishment of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s flat in 10 Downing Street and his alleged remarks about the Covid-19 death toll will play into the election. Separately, while the SNP may have lost a few points of support because of the row between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond, his new Alba Party does not appear to have made a breakthrough that would make a decisive difference as yet. It is currently polling at levels where it may get one or two seats, or perhaps none at all.

As discussed, after the vote, Johnson is likely to declare that ‘now is not the time’ for a second referendum, irrespective of the Scottish election result.. This will be more difficult to sustain if the SNP win a clear overall majority and easier – although still challenging – if the SNP have to rely on the Greens to get a pro-independence majority. But the most likely scenario remains that Johnson kicks the can down the road until the end of this UK parliamentary term in late 2024.

Some senior UK Tories are pushing Johnson to call the SNP’s bluff and allow a referendum, arguing it would be undemocratic to prevent one and believing the SNP’s case has huge weaknesses. These weaknesses include a lack of a currency, high structural debts that would drive spending cuts and/or tax hikes, and the inevitability of a border with England if an independent Scotland re-joined the EU. However, these arguments may not end the independence drive in Scotland; economic arguments can be trumped by political and cultural considerations.

In addition, Johnson is extraordinarily unpopular in Scotland. He is, therefore, likely to stick to his attempts to delay the debate, and at maximum offer the start of a debate about constitutional reform, which might involve some prospect of House of Lords’ reform in the future.

Northern Ireland

Despite UK-EU relations improving behind the scenes, uncertainty remains in Northern Ireland. In fact, the recent improvement in the outlook for the implementation of the withdrawal agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol is a key reason for continued domestic political issues, including Foster’s resignation.

The EU is acting tough by pushing legal action against the UK for breaching the Northern Ireland protocol and the UK-EU agreement. But it is also working proactively with the UK to resolve technical issues. Both sides have seen the violence and disturbances on the streets of Northern Ireland in recent weeks caused by a powerful mixture of loyalist anger at the protocol and the border in the Irish Sea and exacerbated by criminal gangs. As neither party wants a return to open violence, working-level cooperation has improved, with the UK committed to the protocol, and the EU signaling its willingness to compromise on the details of implementation if not the major principles, as anticipated.

This is encouraging for Northern Ireland and UK-EU relations, which were at extremely low levels post Brexit and vaccine wars. However, major risks are still looming. After Foster’s resignation, her Unionists (DUP) will hold a leadership election, creating additional uncertainty. On top of that, elections are due in Northern Ireland next year, and the Assembly that is elected will be the one whose consent will be required for the protocol’s continued application after 2024. If consent is maintained, as is more likely, the loyalist community may be further enraged. If consent is denied, this would be uncharted territory for Northern Ireland as this removes the part of the Brexit deal aimed at ensuring no border within the island of Ireland, which is critical to maintain peace.

Until then, the main issue remains the border in the Irish Sea, which is now in place and is causing major disruption to intra-UK trade. Foster’s resignation is testament to the DUP’s dramatic misjudgments in recent years. Guided by its (mistaken) belief that Brexit would free Northern Ireland from the influence of the Republic of Ireland, the DUP supported Brexit, and believed Johnson’s (wrong) claim that he would not introduce a border in the Irish Sea. Johnson then did precisely that in the Northern Ireland protocol agreed in 2019. While the PM has positioned himself as being tough with the EU on Northern Ireland, the reality is that his government is now working behind the scenes to deliver and implement the protocol.

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