The Scottish Government will be free to “slavishly follow” EU law after the Brexit transition period has ended if it wants to, George Eustice has said.
Eustice said the UK Internal Market Bill will not prevent the Scottish Government keeping pace with EU law in devolved areas.
But he predicted that the EU would sooner or later bring forward a policy that is against Scotland’s interest, creating a “difficult quandary” for Scottish ministers.
The UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs appeared before Holyrood’s rural affairs and connectivity committee to discuss the implications of Brexit for the rural economy in Scotland.
Answering questions from MSPs he said that the Scottish Parliament would be “empowered” by the new rules under the controversial Internal Market Bill.
Eustice said that if the UK and EU failed to reach a deal by the end of the transition period on 31 December that it would be likely that exports and imports of food would see similar tariffs applied “in both directions”.
But he said that plans were in place to ensure fresh products like shellfish could be fast-tracked through EU customs if necessary.
Eustice also said that more details on how the UK Shared Prosperity Fund would be administered would come in light of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement of £1.5bn a year in his spending review on Wednesday.
Eustice said that there would be nothing in the Internal Market Bill that would limit the Scottish Government’s ability to keep pace with EU law in devolved areas.
He said: “There would be nothing, I think, to prevent the Scottish Government for doing that insofar as it’s consistent with a devolved settlement”.
Eustice said he was not “sufficiently familiar” with the Scottish Government’s policy of Minimum Unit Pricing of alcohol to say whether or not such a bill would be included in that.
He added: “Broadly speaking, yes, it’s open to the Scottish Government to slavish follow EU law if that is what they wish to do.
“I suspect it won’t be a strategy that can be maintained in the long term because it is only a matter of time before the EU would bring forward a policy proposal that would be manifestly against Scottish interest, and it then does become a moot point of, do you elevate the pursuit of EU law above the interests of Scotland.
“I think that would leave probably any Scottish Government in quite a difficult quandary.”
Eustice said that MSPs will “see more details soon” about the UK Shared Prosperity Fund but declined to say whether it would be administered wholly or in part by the UK Government.
Asked what role he believes the Scottish Parliament should have in scrutinising any new trade deals the UK makes after the end of the transition period, Eustice said: “These trade negotiations are reserved matter, so ultimately, the UK Government leads on them.”
He added: “However, through the trade and agriculture commission we have Scottish stakeholders directly engaged”.