Nicola Sturgeon: UKs Brexit position unsustainable

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon said Monday that the U.K. governments position on leaving the EU customs union and single market is “unsustainable” and dominated by “mad Brexiteers.”

In an interview with POLITICOs Ryan Heath in Brussels, Sturgeon urged British citizens not to give up on the possibility of preserving the U.K.s membership of both.

Sturgeon, also leader of the Scottish National Party, which has 35 seats in the House of Commons, urged Theresa Mays government to shift its position on staying in the customs union as soon as possible, and said she has shared her view with the EUs chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, at a meeting in Brussels earlier Monday.

Her view helps explain why EU officials in Brussels, and indeed in EU27 capitals, have little confidence that the red lines laid down by May will remain in place. Notably, in the conclusions of the March European Council summit, EU leaders stated that they were willing to negotiate on different terms should the U.K. change its positions.

“To cut to the chase, reality at some point has to bite for the U.K,” Sturgeon said. “Currently the government is trying to reconcile a whole plethora of irreconcilable issues. At some point, it has to choose. And at the point it has to choose I think there is a prospect, and a positive prospect, that that choice — because of the dynamic in the House of Commons and in the country more generally — that that choice takes us in the direction of the customs union and the single market.”

“So if thats coming eventually,” she said, “I think the sooner we get to that point, the better for everybody.”

Noting that the government has ruled out continued membership of the customs union and single market, Sturgeon said: “But the governments position is unsustainable.”

“I dont think anybody who is in favor of this at home should be giving up on the customs union and single market options,” she said.

She said the government in Westminster is not listening to a range of opinions on the right kind of Brexit for the U.K. “They are not really listening to anybody except the mad Brexiteers,” she said, naming Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg.

“Even though I dont think these people speak for a majority — in terms of their support for a hard Brexit — of the country, they are the ones that are being listened to.”

Full-circle discussions

Sturgeon said she has told Barnier that Scotlands position is in favor of staying in the single market.

“I was very clear with Michel Barnier this morning that I wanted to see not just Scotland, but the U.K. as a whole, remain within the single market,” she said. “Thats the position the Scottish government has taken all along.”

Sturgeon, echoing a feeling of many officials in Brussels, said the whole Brexit process feels a bit like a merry-go-round.

“We keep coming full circle in these discussions,” she said. “I think the only credible and sustainable option for the U.K. here is to remain within a customs union. And theres a question of whether they concede that now or are forced to concede that later … My view is if we concede it now, then we might start to see some progress in these talks and that would be better than waiting until later.”

Sturgeon also said she is concerned about the potential competitive advantage that Northern Ireland could gain over Scotland from the EUs so-called backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland in the EU customs union as a way of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

May has agreed in principle in December to a backstop for Ireland, but has disputed the EUs interpretation, which she has said is unacceptable.

Sturgeon with the EUs chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier | Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Sturgeon, in the POLITICO interview, said that Scotland would have a problem with Northern Ireland being allowed to stay in the customs union and having better access to the EU single market. She said the prospect of such a scenario only highlights that the U.K. governments current position is untenable.

“If there is a situation where Ireland, Northern Ireland has a different relationship with the single market, of course that raises extra, or raises additional issues for Scotland,” she said. “And I think it actually raises a whole lot of issues for the U.K. government, to agree to a separate relationship with the EU for Northern Ireland, which is why its such a mess around these negotiations at the moment.”

The first minister said it is hard to engage the Westminster government because civil servants are so preoccupied by Brexit. “The Whitehall machine is consumed by Brexit almost to the exclusion of everything else,” she said. “I dont think thats healthy for governance generally.”

Sturgeon said that negotiations in Brussels are approaching a crunch moment at which the British government would not be able to avoid fundamental choices. “The EU have been pretty clear from day one there cant be a pick and mix approach,” she said, “You cant be in the club and ignore all the founding rules of the club.”

But she said that on the U.K. side there had been “a wilful refusal to accept that.”

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