Brexit Crossroads: What Now?

Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER)/RSE Roundtable Discussion

The RSE hosted a meeting with the Scottish Centre on European Relations (SCER) on 12 December 2018 to discuss Brexit. Topics discussed included: options available to the UK; backstops and future agreements; Scotland’s voice in the debate; a second referendum; and political communication. Listen to comment from Professor Jo Shaw FRSE, who chaired the meeting  and read summary below.


Key Themes

The themes below are general points of discussion that occurred at the meeting and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisers or individual participants.

The Options Available

The EU27 has made it clear that the Withdrawal Agreement currently agreed between the European Union and the UK Government is the best and only deal available. This leaves only three possibilities:

1. The UK leaves the EU on the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and begins negotiating on terms of their future relationship.
2. The UK leaves the EU with no deal in place.
3. The UK remains within the EU.

The Parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster makes option 1 highly unlikely. It does not appear that this deal can be renegotiated and reassurances from the EU are not likely to prove persuasive to MPs. There is not currently a majority for any single course of action in the House of Commons.

The Backstop and Future Agreements

The ‘backstop’ position on the island of Ireland has become the most contentious aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement, but it is not the only sticking point. Any future agreement between the UK and EU will need to find a way of accommodating the backstop. Applying technical solutions to what are not technical problems is not the solution. Following the referendum result in 2016 it was assumed that by this point in the process there would be some level of consensus as to where on the spectrum of potential agreements (from Canada+ to Norway+) the UK wished to be. This is not the case, with all options seemingly still possibilities.

Scotland’s Voice

Scotland voted by a significant majority to remain within the EU, but is likely to leave, as part of the UK. This may leave many in Scotland feeling disenfranchised. It is unclear whether Scottish civic society is doing enough to express Scotland’s voice to the rest of the UK and to Europe. This has potentially been exacerbated by a limited range of views within Scottish political parties, and a reluctance, until recently, for the Scottish National Party to embrace a People’s Vote.


The 2016 referendum facilitated the creation of strong ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ political identities in the UK which serve as proxies for numerous other indicators of how society is divided. As a result of this polarisation and the closeness of the referendum result, any outcome – whether to leave the EU or to remain – will result in a significant proportion of the country feeling disillusioned.

A Second Referendum

The likelihood of a second referendum appears to have increased in recent months, yet such a vote could be harmful to public faith in the UK’s democracy. Any version of a referendum – whether binary or multiple choice – has inherent drawbacks and would be met with hostility by some. The experience of Ireland, however, should be noted. Approval of the Lisbon Treaty was put to the Irish people a second time following its rejection in a referendum, albeit with significant alterations making it a different proposition, and substantial erosion of faith in democracy did not seem to endure.

Political Communication

Political communication on specific issues has not been good enough over several decades. Successive governments have failed to identify an effective method of putting forward the economic and social benefits of immigration to the British people. Leaders need to address the concerns the public have on globalisation while taking appropriate action to assist areas where immigration has caused genuine issues.

Similarly, the benefits of the European Union have not been skilfully communicated to the public, with the Union portrayed to the British people as overly bureaucratic with its virtues almost solely financial.

Both immigration and the European Union serve as lightning rods for other concerns the public have. An effective strategy to properly discuss their benefits and address their drawbacks must be found.