“The UK has voted to leave the EU”, announced David Dimbleby. I blinked at the TV. The news was a surprise, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to follow.
The 24-hour news cycle went into a spin.
- The Prime Minister resigned
- a coup against the Labour leader went nuclear as Shadow Cabinet resignations flew in one after another
- a second referendum, on either Scottish independence or the future of the UK in Europe (no one seemed quite sure) was on the cards
- Boris Johnston was going to be the next PM, then wasn’t
- Nigel Farage resigned as UKIP leader because, in his words, “the job is done” (in the spirit of neutrality I will not explore this statement).
Amid such manic coverage the actual implications of leaving the EU received little attention. Enter SCVO’s Policy Officer’s network. Just a week after the referendum we met to wrestle with the issues.
Scotland’s third sector is vast, so the conversation covered a range of issues. First up was the potential impact on funding. Brexit is potentially just two years away, a tight timescale when considering the EU funding cycle.
UK-based charities may find it difficult to secure European funding partners for joint bids. While it’s currently business as usual for programmes such as Erasmus+, the future of funded activities beyond Brexit is unclear. Colleagues working with Youth Link Scotland felt, however, that Erasmus could be protected through negotiations, or for the UK to apply as an associate nation.
The future of employment, training and skills programmes supported by the European Social Fund is unclear, as is the future of employability bodies which in Scotland benefit from £20m in European Structural Funding each year.
On top of all that, as the pound plummets so too does the value of EU grants.
While not directly related to funding, colleagues questioned whether pension deficits pose a deepening challenge as investment portfolios are hit by market forces.
Each of these dilemmas could have a serious impact on a sector already squeezed by cuts to public sector funding.
With new challenges, however, come new opportunities.
Procurement, which is controlled by EU directives and Scottish Parliament legislation could see changes, although with new devolved legislation now in force, this seems unlikely any time soon.
Colleagues highlighted that EU legislation on agriculture, fishing and the environment, may become devolved by default, potentially creating new opportunities for third sector organisations involved in these areas.
Similarly, the process of negotiating the UK’s exit may create new opportunities for citizen engagement. At this point, however, a new challenge emerged. While 71.8% of the electorate chose to have their say in the EU referendum, their preference could be at odds with a large majority of MPs who, some commentators argue, have every right to vote against Brexit. Colleagues found such arguments incompatible with the ambition of many in the sector to strengthen participatory democracy.
We are at an impasse. Politicians need the public to engage in the democratic process, but the referendum result could reignite debate around what participation should look like in a representative democracy. A change of tone could alter how participatory democracy is approached, and hit participative budgeting and community empowerment schemes. To make progress, colleagues suggested that a distinction between local and national democracy may be needed.
So far we had avoided talking politics, but as the meeting drew to a close we ventured into the political landscape.
Could the Liberal Democrats, who have always been strong advocates of the EU, recapture political relevance north and south of the border following the result? Students in particular could change the party’s fortunes. It’s worth noting that the Lib Dems are already making moves to save the ERASMUS programme.
Following a discussion of voter demographics, colleagues agreed that the Labour Party may find their vote continues to evaporate and perhaps shift to a victorious UKIP. Meanwhile the Conservative Party seems likely to emerge from both the referendum and its leadership contest relatively unscathed.
As for the SNP, could this be their golden opportunity? Or will they find that support for Brexit is stronger than anticipated among core voters?
The impact of Brexit negotiations on both political parties and the third sector remains to be seen. We can be certain of only one thing: challenging times lie ahead for both.