The future relationship negotiations between the UK government and the EU begin in Brussels on 3 March 2020. It is unclear how the UK government plans to consult and work with the devolved administrations during the negotiations.
The devolution acts reserve foreign affairs and international relations, but not the business of observing and implementing international obligations in devolved areas.
During the Article 50 process the UK government treated the negotiations as a reserved competence, and thus there was limited discussion with the devolved governments. The indications are that it intends to adopt a similar approach to the talks on the future relationship.
Given the breadth of any future relationship negotiated with the EU, it is likely to include obligations in devolved policy areas which may require implementation at devolved level, and to impact upon areas of significant interest to the devolved nations. This has led the Scottish and Welsh governments to call for more involvement on their parts in the negotiations.
The UK government’s negotiating mandate, meanwhile, includes a recognition of the interests of the devolved administrations, stating that it ‘is committed to working with the devolved administrations to deliver a future relationship with the EU that works for the whole of the UK.’
Role for the devolved administrations?
The Institute for Government has argued that ‘the UK government must involve the devolved administrations to properly reflect Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish interests in the talks’.
Following the Joint Ministerial Committee (European Negotiations) meeting in Cardiff in January 2020, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove suggested that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will have a say on future EU trade talks.
However, it is not clear how that role will be articulated, particularly given the difference in the policy positions in relation to the economic relationship with the EU between the UK government and the Scottish and Welsh governments.
The Scottish government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, Michael Russell, has suggested that the UK should adopt an approach similar to that followed by Canada when negotiating CETA with the EU, where the provinces were represented in the negotiating room.
For its part, the Welsh government has published its thoughts on intergovernmental dialogue. The document included a statement that the UK government should ensure that the devolved governments are fully involved in the negotiations, and in the joint committee, that will oversee the implementation of the agreements.
Both the Welsh and Scottish governments have proposed a future economic relationship with the EU which goes beyond the basic free trade agreement proposed by the UK government. Notably, these include level playing field commitments.
Differences between the positions of the UK government and the devolved governments on issues such as frictionless trade, regulatory alignment and the level playing field look difficult to bridge, and so achieving a UK position that the devolved governments can support will be tricky.
However, the negotiations are not just about trade and economics, but they will also encompass the future security relationship and possible participation in EU programmes such as research collaboration.
These other issues may be areas where the UK government can seek to work with the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in shaping the future relationship.
For example, both the Welsh and Scottish governments have called for continued participation in EU programmes such as Horizon Europe and Erasmus+. The Prime Minister’s written statement to Parliament indicated that the UK is ready to consider participation in certain EU programmes.
On fisheries, in October 2019, the Scottish government highlighted the EU’s linking of access to waters and quota shares to the wider economic relationship, stating that this would be a risk to Scottish interests.
As such, the UK government position that a fisheries agreement should be separate from the economic partnership and be negotiated annually with the EU is in line with the Scottish government’s desire to separate fisheries from economics.
Whilst the UK position on fisheries may be subject to compromise as the negotiations unfold (given the EU’s starting point), the UK government could seek to work with the Scottish government as the position develops.
Finally, on Brexit, the Scottish and Welsh governments have worked closely with each other in coordinating their relationship with the UK government. Throughout the future relationship negotiations this approach is likely to continue, as the two governments share similar priorities.
The reinstatement of the Northern Ireland executive adds a further devolved dimension and potentially strengthens the hand of the devolved governments if they can work together as a trio.
It might also be of value for the devolved governments to work with some of the new city and regional mayors across England where there are common interests. For example, the Conservative Mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street has called on the UK government to secure a free trade agreement which ensures a close trading relationship with the EU.
Another approach which may benefit the devolved administrations is to seek the support of business and stakeholders to make the case directly to the UK government. This approach would involve businesses in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland addressing their case directly to the UK government, setting out their requirements for the future relationship – particularly in terms of the economic relationship.
Given the difficulties present in the current operation of intergovernmental machinery, it will be challenging for the devolved administrations to effectively influence the UK government’s negotiating position to reflect the stated interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
However, by working together, and working with other interested stakeholders the devolved administrations can ensure that the UK government is made aware of the negotiating priorities identified by the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
By Iain McIver, senior researcher, Scottish Parliament Information Centre.