Jack O’Connor, Chair of the European Economic and Social Committee’s EU-UK Follow-up Committee, sets out the findings of a recent delegation to the UK which looked at relations between EU and UK civil society and the impact of the Withdrawal Agreement.
European social partners and other civil society organisations have a say on various EU policies through the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). At the onset of Brexit, the EESC set up its EU-UK Follow-up Committee to manage relations between EU and UK organised civil society and monitor EU-UK agreements and other key developments.
To advise the EU institutions on the implementation of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement (WA), including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (NIP), the EESC has relied on contacts with UK social partners and third-sector organisations, and hosted official speakers from both the UK and the EU.
To build up its understanding of how things work on the ground, the EESC sent a delegation to the UK, which took place from 17 to 21 October 2022. In addition to its underlying objective to keep reinforcing the links with its UK counterparts, the EESC set out to assess the implementation of the WA, with a particular emphasis on the NIP, citizens’ rights, and young people’s concerns. Meetings were held in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Belfast with representatives of more than sixty organisations from across a variety of sectors.
The results of this fact-finding exercise are showcased in a new EESC report, adopted unanimously by the EESC at its plenary session on 25 January 2023.
Crucially, the EESC observed that representatives of civil society organisations from across the UK displayed palpable enthusiasm for engagement and cooperation both with their EU counterparts and the EU as a whole, which the EESC is particularly happy about, as it leaves the door wide open for future collaboration and potentially good neighbourly relations between the EU and the UK.
The participants discussed the NIP issues that are straining the EU-UK relationship, highlighting that a more active role for Northern Ireland’s civil society in tackling these issues would likely aid the search for a solution, potentially opening up the way towards a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship between the UK and the EU. A more active or even direct involvement of organised civil society in monitoring, and advising on the effects of the NIP’s implementation would shed more light on the facts on the ground, which in turn could speed up political decision making and provide it with more credibility. The inclusive approach that our delegation observed in Wales and Scotland, where organised civil society is widely consulted on many important matters, proves that this is possible.
The protection of post-Brexit rights of both EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU has been very high on the EESC’s agenda, with cliff-edge deadlines causing much personal distress and inconvenience to ordinary people. For example, some 2.6m EU citizens in the UK are at risk of removal by the Home Office if they do not upgrade their pre-settled status to settled status in time. The consultations showed that although some progress has been made, many problems persist, such as digital-only status, technical glitches and backlogs. The EESC report puts the spotlight on these issues by sketching them out and concluding that liberal democracies should not allow individuals and their families to become collateral damage of their political differences.
UK representatives also expressed their views that the domestic advisory groups (a balanced representation of business, trade unions and third-sector organisations in charge of monitoring certain or sometimes all, as is the case with the UK, aspects of free trade agreements, with each party setting up its own domestic advisory group) need to be fleshed out and propped up. For instance, it was pointed out that the composition of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement Domestic Advisory Group appears to be imbalanced both in terms of representation of business, workers, and third-sector organisations, and in terms of geographical representation from all parts of the UK.
Likewise, attention was brought to the fact that both domestic advisory groups would need to take better account of the young generation, as at the moment they appear to lack representation of young people. These issues should be ironed out as soon as possible, and at the latest in 2025, when the first five-year review of the TCA is scheduled.
Our engagement with UK youth organisations emphasised to us that the loss of free EU movement and people-to-people contacts based on the UK’s decision not to remain in EU programmes such as Erasmus+ is an especially damaging consequence of Brexit. This sentiment was clearly expressed during our delegation’s meetings with representatives of the British Youth Council and Young Scot, who stressed that the young people that they work with always tell them how important international opportunities are for them. As such, they would like to do all that they can to encourage stakeholders to ensure these exciting and vital opportunities within Europe remain possible for young people in Britain. The EESC therefore welcomed the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly’s unanimous agreement to raise the issue of a future mobility scheme for young British people with the UK-EU Partnership Council.
All the evidence collected during our fact-finding mission and via other sources shows that social partners and third-sector organisations across the UK have an overwhelming desire for a deeper, more cooperative, and constructive relationship between the UK and the EU. By adopting the EESC report unanimously, European civil society has shown that same desire and belief that current unsteady bridges between the EU and the UK can be reinforced by their civil society on both sides of the Channel.
By Jack O’Connor, Chair of the EESC EU-UK Follow-up Committee.