On Monday night, Parliament passed a bill allowing Prime Minister Theresa May to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. On the same day, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for Scotland to hold a second referendum on declaring independence from the UK. Here are five facts you should know about these momentous developments within the transatlantic alliance:
1. The bill allows the UK to trigger Brexit at once. The House of Commons voted down two amendments attached by the House of Lords requiring 1) that all EU migrants currently living in the UK be granted permission to remain indefinitely; and 2) that Parliament be allowed to vote after the government finalizes the terms of the Brexit deal. PM May had said that the government had already offered its assurances to migrants, and that while the UK would like to preserve access to the single market, it will depart the EU regardless of the terms imposed by Brussels. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she has said. Despite 52 percent of British voters supporting Brexit in last June’s referendum, the Supreme Court ruled in January that under the treaty’s terms, a final parliamentary vote was necessary to trigger the nation’s exit.
2. Brexit will be completed within two years. The new bill allows Prime Minister May to notify Brussels that she is triggering the two-year-long process of exiting the EU. Although she could do so immediately, she has consistently said she plans to do so in late March – that date now set for March 27, according to those close to her. The extent to which the UK will have access to the EU single market and freedom from EU regulations remains unknown, but the prime minister of Malta has warned EU negotiators against “punishing any particular country,” and the German finance minister has said, “We don’t want to punish the British for their decision.”
3. Another referendum on Scottish independence is likely within 18 to 24 months. Nearly two-thirds of Scots (62 percent) voted Remain in last June’s Brexit referendum, but the Supreme Court ruled that Westminster did not need to confer with the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. Seeing its views disregarded on EU membership has led First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to say a new referendum is in order in autumn 2018 or spring 2019, just before Brexit negotiations are complete. PM May – who has accused Sturgeon of using the vote to “play politics and create uncertainty” – objected that Sturgeon’s Scottish Independence Party described the September 2014 national referendum on independence as a “once in a generation” event which it lost. But the prime minister seems poised to allow the vote to go forward in summer 2019 after EU negotiations are complete. She is expected to begin a UK-wide tour to sure up support for Brexit before formally initiating the break with the EU. A Sky News poll found only 30 percent of Scots approve of holding another independence referendum, with 65 percent opposed.
4. If the independence vote were held today, it would fail. Scotland joined the United Kingdom with the Act of Union, adopted on January 16, 1707, and Scottish voters rejected independence just over two years ago by a 54-46 margin. Were the election held today, two polls from BMG and What Scotland Says show the public narrowly rejecting independence again. That decision is in part economic. Scottish trade with the rest of the UK in 2015 amounted to £49.8 billion, and rising, while its trade with the EU was £12.3 billion and £16.4 with the rest of the world.
5. The EU may not admit Scotland at once even if it were an independent nation. After the Brexit referendum, Sturgeon and other Scottish officials had inquired about an independent Scotland taking the UK’s place as a member of the EU, but Brussels balked. The EU’s representative to the UK, Jaqueline Minor, said that Scotland would have to apply for membership under the terms in Article 49, like any other nation. “If Scotland became an independent country, I think Article 49 is the normal starting point,” she said. Should Holyrood follow through, the EU may be unlikely to be admit Scotland at once due to its poor economic circumstances; specifically, its GDP-to-deficit ratio is too high. Under EU rules the deficit must not account for more than three percent of a member state’s GDP, while Scotland’s stands at 9.5 percent of GDP, according to Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland 2015-16 (GERS). Moreover, EU member states must unanimously accede to admitting new members, but Spain may exercise its veto to tamp down nationalist yearnings in its own Catalonia region.
(Photo credit: Rebecca Harms. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)