Huw Irranca-Davies, Chair of the Senedd’s Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, outlines the conclusions of the committee’s recent report on UK-EU governance, which makes the case for greater consultation and engagement with the devolved governments and legislatures.
The UK left the EU almost four years ago. The period since has been a time of rapid change involving continued negotiation, adaptation and adjustment as both sides grapple with the enormity of the changes to our relationship.
In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that much of the focus has been on the content of the UK-EU relationship and agreements that govern it, rather than how it is managed and who has a say in the decisions being taken.
The Senedd’s Legislation, Justice and Constitution (LJC) Committee decided to reflect on these important, yet often overlooked, issues in its inquiry and subsequent report on UK-EU governance.
Complex new structures under both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) have emerged to govern the UK-EU relationship. For example, 24 new joint forums play a role in managing the TCA, overseen by the UK-EU Partnership Council (co-chaired by UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron and Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič).
The agreements governing the UK-EU relationship and these new governance structures cover large areas for which the devolved legislature and government are responsible. As a result, decisions taken in the new structures could restrict the use of devolved powers in future without devolved decision-makers having a say. For example, Welsh ministers are responsible for Wales’s biosecurity, food safety and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls to protect animal, plant and public health. Decisions taken on UK-EU SPS controls will impact the regulatory freedom of the Welsh Ministers and the Senedd.
This is not just a concern for the devolved nations. The evidence we received from the EU Committee of the Regions expressed similar concerns. And a recent resolution on the TCA adopted by the European Parliament noted that the TCA fails to develop the territorial dimension of the relationship between the UK and the EU and calls for the adoption of ‘tailored measures’ for the regions most impacted.
Why does it matter that powers are concentrated at the top? After all, negotiation of international treaties is reserved to the UK government in the UK, and to the European Commission in areas of EU competence.
The reality of the system on both sides, however, is that devolved governments, legislatures, and local and regional authorities in the UK and EU will be instrumental in the successful implementation of the UK-EU agreements because of the large number of devolved areas that intersect with areas covered by the agreement from fisheries and environmental management to health security cooperation and trade controls at borders.
Civil society organisations in the UK and EU have a role to play too in providing practical evidence of the day-to-day impact of the agreements on their members.
A better understanding of devolved issues at all levels will provide important practical intelligence, experience and evidence to the UK government and the European Commission, including on potential barriers to implementation which could avoid unnecessary duplication, cost and delay.
The lack of transparency of the new structures should, and does, concern UK and European Parliamentarians. A quick glance at meeting minutes of the committees and forums of the Withdrawal Agreement and TCA this autumn shows the range of important issues being discussed : energy security, electric vehicle batteries, the impact of the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism on the UK steel industry and the ability of our farmers to trade freely.
Knowing what decisions are being taken and when, what compromises are on the table and what consequences might result if agreement cannot be reached is important.
But these new structures, as Professor Catherine Barnard told us, currently have the transparency of a ‘black box’. Agendas are often skeletal and appear at varying times in advance. In many cases minutes, even when detailed, can take months to appear by which time events may have bypassed decisions taken. This makes it difficult for legislatures and civil society to meaningfully scrutinise the discussions taking place.
A response often given to calls for a greater role for devolved legislatures and governments in the new structures is that it will somehow undermine the UK position – or that the difficulty of the decisions that need to be made require centralisation and a single voice.
However, this misses the positive and constructive case to be made for a diversity of voices on both sides.
Differences in geographies, histories, economies and cultures mean that the nations, regions and areas of the UK and EU have developed their own knowledge and solutions. The value of this collective expertise should be drawn upon. Providing more meaningful engagement with a diverse range of voices would generate ideas and solutions that would not be found otherwise.
This is not a novel idea in the UK. Devolved governments were involved in UK positions adopted at the Council of Ministers during EU membership. Ministers from devolved nations formed part of the delegations at Council meetings and on occasion led discussions on behalf of the UK – for example Scottish ministers on fisheries and Welsh ministers on red meat.
Our report sets out a series of recommendations on how a more diverse range of voices could be included in the future UK-EU relationship; how the oversight and transparency of the new structures of the relationship could be improved, and how we can ensure that civil society has a say in the future. Actions that could be taken immediately include:
- An urgent review by the governments of the UK of the principles and terms upon which devolved governments are engaged in UK-EU relations.
- The UK government and EU Commission publishing and advertising meeting agendas consistently at least two weeks in advance; and publishing as much information as possible in minutes and meeting documents within as short a timescale as possible after the meetings, ideally with a month.
- The Welsh government informing the Senedd by written statement of any decisions taken within the governance structures in areas of devolved legislative competence. It should set out its view on these decisions and any discussions that took place, with the UK and/or other devolved governments in advance of these decisions being taken.
- Relevant scrutiny committees in the legislatures of the UK discussing how they can collectively improve the oversight and scrutiny of the governance structures.
By Huw Irranca-Davies, Member of the Senedd and Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee.