The European Union and the United Kingdom must approach Brexit negotiations in a pragmatic fashion in order to avoid negative consequences for both sides.
That was the view put forward by UK government minister Lord Duncan on Springbank during a flying visit to the isles this week.
Mr Duncan, formerly a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, was in Shetland on Thursday to meet with figures concerned in industries such as fisheries and renewable energy. The lord, whose appointment as a parliamentary under-secretary in the Scotland Office proved controversial following a failed attempt to be elected as an MP in 2017’s general election, also met with local councillors on his visit.
In a press briefing, Mr Duncan said that his trip to the isles had been both a fact-finding mission and one where he sought to answer the questions and concerns of those he met with.
“A lot is going on as you’ll know in terms of the wider Brexit world and [the visit is] to make sure there’s a real dialogue where people are able to ask the questions they want to ask.”
He added: “A lot of the key sectors up here are very much in the forefront of the emerging Brexit world and post-Brexit world… so it’s very much to be available and to answer as best I can questions that might be there, to learn what the issues are people are concerned about here and take them back down the road so that we have, as best we can, a better understanding of exactly how Brexit will unfold everywhere in the UK.”
It was key to hear what industry figures viewed as the problems and opportunities of Brexit in order to form policy and Shetland could offer important insights Mr Duncan felt.
One concern was that of the future status of migrant labourers who form a large part of the fisheries workforce within the UK. For Mr Duncan the assurances made to those people must now be ratified in law.
“The processing side is heavily dependent upon, at the moment, migrant labour. So you know, how do we ensure therefore that there’s a ready and steady supply of migrant labour?”
Currently, without a clear picture of what the final Brexit deal may look like, or indeed whether there will be a deal at all, the status of those workers is unclear. Mr Duncan said he wanted to see “legal certainty” for them, regardless of the final outcome of negotiations.
“There’s already been declarations of what that should look like but the point is to give legal certainty to migrants who wish to make a home in the United Kingdom.
“We need to make sure that we have offered to those who have committed to the United Kingdom, who’ve made a life here, who’ve put down roots, who have bought houses, put kids in school, all these different things, they need exactly the same certainty with or without a deal.”
But Mr Duncan said both sides had to collaborate to ensure a “common sense” outcome, or else both sides could suffer.
Taking fisheries as an example he said: “The one thing I’m always very clear on is that a no deal is bad for both sides so when I’m talking to fishermen right now, Scotland, Shetland, is a major fish exporting nation and our principal market is the EU so clearly the implications of a bad deal are very clear.
“However, putting that in context, the UK is the principal buyer of EU fish and when you look at the tonnages which are exchanged between the two both would feel the negative impact of a bad deal.”
He added: “There is no single area I can think of where the pain only falls on one side.”
Asked where he stood on the idea of another referendum, this time pitting the final deal against the option of remaining a member of the EU, Mr Duncan expressed general opposition to the concept of referendums.
“Making decisions by referendum is never the most straightforward way to bring about fundamental change… the answer to the delivery is never as straightforward as the binary option”, he said.
He added: “Imagine it was 52-48 the other way round, have we resolved the issue or are we now likely to have another referendum… the resolution rests outwith that democratic endorsement but rather by what has been our traditional method for resolving all our policy questions which is the parliamentary democracy where we have by elections individuals who are meant to be the lead respondents to the will of the people and to then determine a policy which is deliverable.”
Also up for discussion during his visit was the issue of renewable energy. The much talked about interconnector had proved to be the broad focus of those meetings, he said.
Mr Duncan spoke of an upcoming “contract for difference auction” and said that the rules of the auction would allow island wind projects to compete on a level playing field with mainland schemes.
“We have configured the rules of the auction to allow remote island wind to be a participant in that. Previously it would have been difficult for remote island wind to compete.
“Our purpose in creating these reconfigured rules is to ensure that the three island groups can compete in order to ensure that the connectivity of the interconnector is delivered.”
In the first of these auctions, set to take place in May next year, Mr Duncan said that he believed there would be “winners from the islands”.
Broadly summarising his visit, and its relationship in the wider questions facing the UK and Europe, Mr Duncan said: “My take home from here is that Brexit will affect every part of the United Kingdom whether it be in Scolloway, whether it be in Sheffield, whether it be in any part of Scotland.
“So the point we have to be able to understand is what are the implications, what are the opportunities, where are the issues where we need to be looking at new ways of doing things, where are there ways where we just want to simply roll over and copy what’s been done by the EU?”