With Brexit negotiations in Brussels reaching a pivotal stage, this blog post outlines the latest on Wales’s role in the work being done at a UK level to prepare for the future.
The Assembly’s External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee (the Committee) has recently held two evidence sessions with UK Government Ministers to scrutinise the extent to which Wales’s voice has been able to influence UK Government policy on Brexit-related issues. Robin Walker MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, appeared before the Committee on 11 October, and on 15 October, the Committee scrutinised George Hollingbery MP, the Minister of State for Trade Policy.
To what extent has the Welsh Government been able to influence the UK Government’s views on Brexit so far?
When Mr Walker previously attended the Committee on 30 April 2018, he said that the UK Government has always been clear that it wants to make sure that the devolved administrations are involved and are able to press the interests of their particular areas. In the video below, he sets out his views on the extent to which there are examples of how the Welsh Government has been able to influence the position of the UK Government.
When questioned about a common rulebook for goods, Mr Walker recognised that, where there are fundamental political differences between Governments, both governments will not necessarily reach full agreement. He said that the devolved administrations are ‘absolutely part of the discussion’, but that it’s the UK Government that has to define the future relationship between the UK and the EU:
We want to ensure that we've taken on board the views of the devolved administrations…but it's not a situation in which, politically, they can necessarily drive the UK position on these issues more broadly
The First Minister told the Committee in September that the Welsh Government is making it clear to the UK Government that it’s ‘hugely important’ for Wales to be able to shape the common rulebook, and that it shouldn’t be signed off unless all devolved governments agree with its contents:
I think part of the problem is that there are elements in the UK Government that don't see the devolved governments as equals and don’t understand the idea of a discussion with devolved governments…it is hugely important the UK Government understands that, in many areas, devolution operates, and therefore they will need our input into how the common rulebook will function in the future.
On trade policy, Mr Hollingbery told the Committee that there is a need for the UK Government to lead on trade policy, which is a reserved matter. He stated:
Trade and trade negotiation is a retained competence for the UK Government. And there has to be one body doing this because we have a single UK market, and we cannot have a situation whereby one part of the United Kingdom gets to veto what is otherwise a very good deal for everybody else.
He does not envisage that the devolved administrations will have direct participation in trade negotiations. The Welsh Government’s position (PDF, 283KB) is that it should be part of negotiations in areas of devolved competence, either through being ‘in the room’ or ‘in the room next door’. The First Minister provided the Welsh Government’s view on the current situation in evidence to the Committee on 17 September:
At the moment, the UK Government sees this as a non-devolved issue and, I think, sees us as a Government to be informed of what's going on, rather than asked our views before negotiation takes place, which is— I don't think it's sensible, because we can offer a perspective for the UK Government to consider.
However, Mr Hollingbery and his official set out details of the ways they see the Welsh Government being involved in trade policy:
- There will be deep consultation with the Welsh Government and other devolved administrations to involve them in the development of trade policy.
- The Welsh Government will be able to play a role in shaping the mandate for negotiating trade deals.
- Welsh Government officials have been involved in the ‘deep dive’ exercises and policy roundtable events that the Department for International Trade has undertaken. These will evolve into more technical bilateral discussions between Welsh and UK Government officials.
Mr Hollingbery also stated that the Department for International Trade is also looking to develop the input of the Office for the Secretary of State for Wales, as this can lead to Wales’s views being input into the UK Government’s decisions at Cabinet level.
Will there be new mechanisms for engagement between the UK nations after Brexit?
In ’Brexit and Devolution’ (PDF, 642KB) the Welsh Government called for the creation of a Council of Ministers that would meet regularly in a variety of formats to negotiate common rules and frameworks where it is agreed that coherence across the UK is necessary and beneficial.
On this point, Mr Walker recognised that there had been challenges in the early meetings of the Joint Ministerial Council on European Negotiations (JMC(EN)) and said that there needs to be ‘additional machinery’. However, he fell short of agreeing with the First Minister’s suggestion that a UK Council of Ministers is the only way forward, pointing to the review of intergovernmental relationships that is currently ongoing.
In ’Trade policy: the issues for Wales’ (PDF, 2MB) the Welsh Government calls for a Joint Ministerial Council (JMC) on International Trade to be established, as well as for a Memorandum of Understanding between the UK Government and devolved administrations. This would be a precursor to the creation of a UK Council of Ministers.
Mr Hollingbery’s official noted that the UK Government is actively considering the Welsh Government’s proposal that a JMC for International Trade be established. Mr Hollingbery highlighted that his preferred approach would be one that allowed for rapid engagement with the devolved administrations, which is needed in a fast-moving policy area such as trade.
Mr Hollingbery also noted that the UK Government is proposing to introduce a Concordat or Memorandum of Understanding setting out how it will engage with the devolved administrations on trade policy, and listen to their concerns on particular areas. In addition to this, since the last time Mr Walker appeared before the committee, a Ministerial forum on EU negotiations has been established, with the Minister for Housing and Regeneration as the Welsh Government’s representative. Four meetings have since taken place, the latest being on 17 September, where trade in agri-food products and fishing were discussed.
The Minister for Housing and Regeneration, in her capacity as the Welsh Government’s representative on the forum, has previously said that the Welsh Government does welcome the forum, but that it doesn’t substitute their calls to be part of the more formal UK negotiating team.
How will Brexit be scrutinised by the Assembly in the near future?
The First Minister will be appearing before the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee on 5 November. The Committee will also be continuing its inquiries into Wales Future Relationship with Europe and the World – part two and How is the Welsh Government preparing for Brexit?.
There are also a number of ongoing inquiries by other Assembly Committees on Brexit-related areas, including:
- Children, Young People and Education Committee: Impact of Brexit on Higher and Further Education
- Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee: Short inquiry into the implications of Brexit on areas within the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee's remit
In addition, there will be scrutiny of subordinate legislation by the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee resulting from the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and the Assembly will be considering Legislative Consent Motions in Plenary on pieces of UK legislation such as the Trade Bill and the Agriculture Bill.