Redefining Britain’s relationship with the EU after Brexit: Scotland, Wales and the new politics of Europe. Dr. Rachel Minto, Wales Governance Centre, Cardiff University Dr. Carolyn Rowe, Aston Centre for Europe, Aston University Dr. Elin Royles, Aberystwyth University. Image of Europe.

Redefining Britain’s relationship with the EU after Brexit: Scotland, Wales and the new politics of Europe

Published: 3 May 2024

By Dr. Rachel MintoDr. Carolyn Rowe and Dr. Elin Royles

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU has had a fundamental impact on devolved government’s ability to influence the UK Government’s position in relation to the EU. Whilst the issues arising from the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework underscore the significance of increased territorial diversity within UK substate relations with the EU, less has been published on the ways in which Scottish and Welsh perspectives shape the new relationship between the UK and the EU. There are clear ways in which devolved competences will be affected by these relations.

The formal space for the devolved governments’ participation in EU policy-making since Brexit 

To date there has been only limited involvement of the UK’s devolved political institutions within the new framework for UK-EU relations; indeed, in its inquiry into the future of UK-EU relations after Brexit, the House of Lords European Affairs Committee noted that coordination with the devolved governments on EU-related matters had been “insufficient” since Brexit

The EU Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), the two main agreements which together underpin the new framework of UK-EU relations, are associated with devolved matters in a whole host of policy areas. In practice, both have implications for every devolved administration across their portfolios of policy responsibility, from energy to climate change and from health to fisheries. 

In terms of territorial “voice” under the new arrangements, there is presently  very limited devolved government representation on the 8 UK-EU forums established with respect to the WA, nor are the devolved Governments invited to attend the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee (WAJC). There is also evidence that the UK government is not giving adequate consideration to the policy positions articulated by the devolved governments, even in key areas such as energy policy where for instance in Scotland, there are a clear set of commercial and policy interests.

With regard to the Trade Partnership Committees and Specialised Committees under the TCA, the devolved governments’ role is also limited and ad hoc. The expectation is that when devolved matters are considered, their attendance should be facilitated at an appropriate level. 

One European policy or several?

Both the Scottish and Welsh governments have advanced EU policy programmes emphasising individual priorities which do not always align with the UK government’s agenda. 

This is not just political points-scoring by regional leaders. Rather, this relates more to the particular complexion of economic, geographic and sectoral priorities in these territories. For instance, cross-border issues with Ireland are more significant for Wales because of the local economic role played by the ports. As the Welsh Senedd has pointed out, decisions taken within the structures for UK-EU policy collaboration after Brexit around the issue of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls to protect animal, plant and public health will impact the Senedd’s regulatory freedom. The Scottish government has similarly articulated a set of policy priorities on EU matters where it feels the UK government could do more for specific Scottish business and community interests. These include agrifood exports, energy and electricity trading, the mutual recognition of professional qualifications and emissions trading schemes. 

Developing a UK policy towards the EU that accommodates territorial diversity

The reality of governing in a multi-level political system such as the UK is that there is a need for collaboration, as governments need to at the very least share information; in certain situations, they may work together to pool resources, to negotiate and implement cooperative arrangements, or establish a forum for joint decision-making. 

In 2022, the UK created a new framework for the conduct of formal intergovernmental relations, with a specific “Interministerial Group” (IMG) established to allow for cooperation between the UK’s four nations on relations with the EU. This group has an objective to facilitate collaborative working across the levels of political authority in the UK “based on mutual respect for the responsibilities of the governments and their shared role in the governance of the UK”. But to what extent have arrangements for the development of a multi-level, territorially inclusive UK-EU policy in the post-Brexit era met this objective? And do they compensate for the shortcomings of present arrangements within the WA and TCA frameworks?

Assessing the UK-EU Interministerial Group in practice

The UK-EU IMG has met 6 times since it was created in February 2022. In the early period, through to September 2023, there are a number of examples which suggest that this structure was not used to consult effectively with the devolved governments. These include points at which the UK-EU IMG was postponed, or meetings were held at very short notice, making it difficult for devolved government ministers to attend. Further, the meetings were not always well planned in advance, with little opportunity for the devolved governments to inform the agenda. Meetings tended to be organised very close to key UK-EU meetings, thus providing limited opportunities for substantive input. 

However, our emerging findings also suggest that the way in which the UK-EU IMG has operated since September 2023 is more in line with its Terms of Reference (published only in March 2024, following the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly) and in the direction of providing a means to consult more meaningfully with the devolved governments, promoting better collaboration and the avoidance of disagreements. Communication in advance of meetings has been more satisfactory, including prior discussion of the agenda between the different governments. In addition, the more forward-looking content of the discussion provided greater opportunity for devolved governments to share their points of view, as well as allowing for a more detailed mutual exploration of different positions. 

Conclusions – towards inclusivity?

Whilst our findings point to the new intergovernmental arrangements moving in the direction of becoming a mechanism by which to maintain and improve relationships between levels of government around the UK, it also underscores the potential variability of intergovernmental relations on Europe. This relates particularly to the top-down dynamic and the impact of party politics on the operation of these mechanisms. Ultimately,  working relations between civil servants London, Edinburgh and Cardiff continue to be significantly important to the operation of these new intergovernmental relations structures.

Within the UK’s asymmetric multi-level framework of governance, there is even more incentive for the devolved governments to be able to upload priorities and preferences into decision-making, and to advance alternative approaches to key policy challenges. Making this system work will become increasingly significant in an era of new party-political leaderships across the UK’s four nations.

 

This article draws on the current research project being undertaken by the authors: “Assessing the UK’s new intergovernmental relations architecture post-Brexit”, supported by the James Madison Charitable Trust.

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