The Cable

Today in Brexit Going Badly News, Scottish First Minister Offers to Hold off Her Referendum

Amid reports Brexit is headed toward a "train wreck," the Scottish first minister offers an olive branch.


Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon does not want Scotland to leave the European Union. She also does not want Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom. She reiterated both points on Friday. But, she added, she would be willing to forego a second referendum on Scottish independence, provided Britain goes for a “soft Brexit.”

Sturgeon told BBC Radio Scotland, “I’m deliberately saying put my preferred option [of Scottish independence in the EU] to one side and asking people if we can find a consensus and compromise option.” She then took to Twitter to clarify, “For those asking what I mean by ‘soft Brexit’ read @scotgov paper on single market membership and expanded powers.”

Sturgeon previously said a second Scottish referendum was “highly likely” in the wake of the Brexit referendum result (though Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU). Scotland held a referendum on gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 2014, roughly two years before the Brexit vote. That first referendum failed. A second referendum, however, may be more likely to pass, given that a higher percentage of Scots voted against Brexit than they against Scottish independence.

Sturgeon’s political peace offering comes after a particularly tumultuous few days for those charged with carrying out Brexit — and, by extension, for all of Britain. On Tuesday, Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s ambassador to the EU who spent the past 20 years in and out of Brussels, resigned from his post. Some were apparently upset that he warned Brexit could take as many as 10 years to implement. Some, like former UK Independence Party leader and Brexit champion Nigel Farage advocated for Rogers’s replacement to be someone who truly believed in Brexit. On Wednesday, however, Sir Tim Barrow replaced him. Barrow, the former British ambassador to Russia, also spent time in senior posts in Brussels.

Then, on Friday, reports emerged that the United Kingdom is racing toward a “train crash” Brexit, and not only because Barrow needs to rebuild his team (as Rogers’s deputy also resigned). “Free trade,” Rogers wrote in his resignation letter, “does not just happen.” But British Prime Minister Theresa May is reportedly planning a speech at the end of January that will make clear 10 Downing Street is resigned to that reality, and will sacrifice a trade deal to the end of free movement of people — a requirement for remaining in the single European market. May has said she will trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism by through which negotiations for Britain’s departure from the EU begin, by the end of March.

It is becoming increasingly clear Barrow will have to carry out a plan with which he doesn’t agree, and that the government may not fully understand. “This story,” Joseph Dobbs of the European Leadership Network explained to Foreign Policy, “exposes a major problem for the UK Government … the civil service that will be required to deliver what is arguably one of the most complex negotiations in history is deeply concerned by the government’s position or lack thereof.”

And so Britain is left with Brexit-backers, insisting that they do have a plan, and that that plan is to leave the EU; civil service members and EU experts, reminding them that that is a mantra, not a plan; and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, trying to encourage Britain to make it easier for the United Kingdom to remain united.

Photo credit: Andrew Milligan – WPA Pool/Getty Images

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