THE UK’s deeply troubled post-Brexit relations with the EU inevitably impact on Scotland too. The row over the Northern Ireland protocol, Boris Johnson threatening still to suspend key parts of the deal, rumbles on. While the mood music from talks on the protocol has softened somewhat in the last week, a major bust-up remains possible.

Scotland’s economy is damaged by Johnson’s hard Brexit just as the rest of the UK is. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates UK goods trade with the EU is now 15% lower than when the UK was in transition inside the EU’s single market and customs union.

But image-wise, there is a sharp difference between how EU observers see the UK and Scotland today. In Brussels and other EU capitals, politicians and officials underline their lack of trust in the UK government, and their bafflement at what happened to the once professional, pragmatic and generally, if not always, reliable UK.

Views of Scotland from the EU perspective are much more positive. This is the country that voted to stay in the EU, that aims to stay aligned to EU laws in devolved areas. Demands for independence in the EU are now seen as easier to understand.

Meanwhile, the EU-UK Brexit rows appear endless and unpredictable from a Brussels’ view point. Still, Johnson’s threats to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol, reminiscent of his ‘no deal’ threats, may well be just that – a paper tiger soon to be withdrawn.

Indeed, the EU has made it increasingly clear in recent weeks that any suspension of the protocol (through the so-called ‘Article 16’ process) will be met with a very strong response – even up to a suspension of part or all of the whole EU-UK trade deal. This tough EU stance may explain the softening tone of Johnson’s truculent negotiator David Frost.

And while a positive, constructive Scotland-EU relationship is all well and good, in the end, Scotland cannot avoid the fall-out from deteriorating EU-UK relations. The big EU research programme, Horizon Europe, which even Johnson’s government aims to keep the UK part of, matters for Scotland’s universities and research too. But while the protocol row continues, the EU is not signing-off UK participation.

If Johnson chooses to trigger Article 16, then the EU may impose tariffs or other forms of retaliation which will hit Scottish firms too. And if the row deteriorates to the extent that the EU suspends all or part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, then chaos and economic harm will hit Scotland too. The current damaged EU-UK relationship will look positively rosy in comparison to the depths it will hit if a trade war takes off.

Brexit has, of course, impacted on support for independence over the last few years, shifting many remain voters, who previously supported the Union, towards a ‘yes’. And economic and political instability in EU-UK relations, and even the chaos of a full-on trade war, might push some, perhaps a lot, more voters towards independence.

But the opposite could happen too. Brexit instability and the Covid pandemic, all in the context of the deep challenges posed by the climate emergency, will not necessarily make the upheaval of independence look positive for more voters. A calming of EU-UK relations is probably more broadly in Scotland’s interests.

There is talk now of a push to secure agreement around the Northern Ireland protocol before the Christmas holidays kick in. Johnson, battered by his sleaze scandal, his backbenchers restless, could go one of two ways: do a deal on the protocol and claim his tough talk won it, or create a new big row, suspend the protocol, and attempt to sail through the rough waters as a distraction.

The latter would be a huge gamble. Once Article 16 is triggered, then any measures taken (such as suspending customs checks) should not be implemented for 30 days. But that wouldn’t stop headlines on an imminent EU-UK trade war throughout the festive season. And the EU might take other measures straight away.

Even if a deal is done, the challenges of implementing the Northern Ireland protocol illustrate only too bluntly the impact of an EU border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, creating border frictions, costs and supply problems. And while Northern Ireland-Ireland trade is benefitting as a result, the lessons for Scottish independence in the EU are not all easy for the Scottish Government to face up to.

An independent Scotland in the EU would face a harder border to England and Wales, without the exemptions and work-arounds that the Northern Ireland protocol allows. So the border challenge will remain central to the independence debate. And any deal on the protocol won’t help the different scenario of an independent Scottish state in the EU having a full EU external border with England.

Ironically, while the independence cause has benefitted from Brexit, it would now benefit too from EU-UK borders being well managed and from EU-UK relations calming down, so showing that after big change, a new status quo does not need to be endlessly destabilising.

But calm and stability from Johnson’s UK government may well look like a stretch too far. If so, then as and when the Scottish Government takes up serious independence campaigning again, the contrast between belligerent UK-EU relations, and being an equal, friendly EU member state, away from UK chaos, will be the only argument to make.

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