“Unprecedented” constitutional crisis looms as Brexit talks fail

Michael Russell called on the UK Government to recognise the bill as drafted cannot proceed.
Michael Russell called on the UK Government to recognise the bill as drafted cannot proceed.
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The Scottish Government last night warned a “unprecedented” constitutional clash with Westminster after talks in Edinburgh failed to break the deadlock over the repatriation of European powers after Brexit.

Scotland’s Brexit minister Mike Russell said the current plans “fatally undermines” the powers of the Scottish Parliament and consent for the proposed EU Withdrawal would be withheld by MSPs at Holyrood.

Michael Clancy said an agreement prior to the day of exit was crucial

Michael Clancy said an agreement prior to the day of exit was crucial

The bill will repatriate all powers currently sitting at Brussels to Westminster. The nationalist Government in Scotland objects to this approach, insisting that the Scotland Act, which brought about devolution, clearly sets out which responsibilities belong in London, while others in areas like farming, fishing and justice are clearly devolved and should be returned to Holyrood.

Mr Russell said the talks were a “useful opportunity” to exchange views.

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But Mr Russell said; “We remain absolutely clear that, as things stand, we will not recommend to the Scottish Parliament that it gives its consent to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

“The bill as currently drafted is impractical and unworkable. It is a blatant power grab which would take existing competence over a wide range of devolved policy areas, including aspects of things like agriculture and fishing, away from Holyrood, giving them instead to Westminster and Whitehall.

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“That means that unless there are serious and significant changes to the proposed legislation, the strong likelihood is that the Scottish Parliament will vote against the repeal bill.

“To be clear, that would not block Brexit and we have never claimed to have a veto over EU withdrawal. But UK Ministers should still be in no doubt – to override a vote of the Scottish Parliament and impose the EU Withdrawal Bill on Scotland would be an extraordinary and unprecedented step to take.”

The Scottish Parliament has never previously withheld consent over such a measure, with previous disputes resolved after negotiation, so the current impasse sees the UK heading into uncharted territory.

The talks at the Scottish Government’s St Andrews House headquarters yesterday lasted almost two hours. They were the first major attempt by the two Governments to resolve the impasse.

Mr Russell and Deputy First Minister John Swinney attended on behalf of the Scottish Government, while UK Government First Secretary Damian Green was joined by Scottish Secretary David Mundell.

Mr Green said the meeting allowed both sides to decide the “principles on which we want to operate” over which powers will be devolved and further meetings are now planned.

Mr Green added: “The Scottish Secretary and I both repeated the point which we can’t make too strongly which is that we hope and expect that at the end of this process there will be more powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government than there have been under the previous EU arrangements.”

UK Ministers have previously said (EU Withdrawal) Bill will be a “powers bonanza” for the Scottish Parliament.

They insisted that the Withdrawal bill is more of a technical mechanism to ensure that the logistics of Brexit and the mass transfer of powers from Brussels to the UK can be undertaken when Brexit formally happens in March 2019. They say further powers will then be transferred back to Holyrood, but some will have to remain at Westminster to protect the UK single market, so that different regulations don’t’ suddenly emerge for bottling products like Irn Bru north and south of the border.

But Mr Russell insisted that the UK Government must now recognise that “the bill as drafted cannot proceed.”

He added: “It should be changed to take account of the very serious concerns expressed by the Scottish and Welsh Governments.

“The current proposals are a direct threat to the devolution settlement which the people of Scotland overwhelmingly voted for in 1997.

“As we have made clear, we are not opposed in principle to UK-wide frameworks in certain areas – but this must be on the basis of agreement among equals, not imposed by Westminster.”