This article is part of our 'What's next? Key issues for the Sixth Senedd' collection.
Over the course of the Fifth Senedd, the Welsh Government and Senedd’s roles in international affairs changed dramatically. The UK's withdrawal from the EU has reframed the UK's approach to international engagement and has required increased cooperation between the UK and devolved governments. As a result, the role of the Senedd in the scrutiny of international affairs looks set to increase.
During the Sixth Senedd, the UK is expected to sign up to a wide range of new international commitments affecting devolved policies and laws.
The Senedd’s scrutiny of international commitments matters. International agreements often contain far reaching obligations which can impact on the everyday lives of businesses and people in Wales. The Senedd’s ability to pass laws is also constrained by what the UK Government agrees to on the international stage. The Welsh Government’s ability to deliver its policies is also shaped by these commitments. The UK Government has responsibility for leading negotiations on new agreements but recognises the role the devolved institutions have in implementing agreements in devolved areas.
Through careful scrutiny of international agreements, the Senedd has the potential to add value for the benefit of Wales.
What new international agreements can be expected in the Sixth Senedd?
A number of new international agreements of significance to Wales are expected over the course of this Sixth Senedd. These include free trade agreements between the UK and the US, New Zealand, Australia and the UK joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
During the Sixth Senedd, the UK is also expected to sign up to new international commitments in the fields of biodiversity, food, the marine environment and climate change. These agreements will sit alongside Wales’ new relationship with Europe.
The UK Government says that the trade agreements it’s negotiating will present new opportunities for UK businesses, including those in Wales. Increasing UK trade with other countries will likely create losers as well as winners. These new UK agreements could result in Welsh businesses experiencing increased competition from imports, with specific sectors affected differently. For example, a free trade agreement with New Zealand has the potential to have a negative impact on the UK’s agriculture and semi-processed food sectors, as New Zealand has a comparative advantage in these sectors.
This is why the Senedd scrutiny of international agreements matters. The Fifth Senedd’s External Affairs and Additional Legislation (EAAL) Committee said:
The Senedd has a role in identifying Welsh interests and, through scrutiny and representation, ensuring that agreements are implemented and developed in a way that maximise their benefits to Wales.
Potential impact of free trade agreements on Gross Value Added in Wales
Agreement (a scoping assessment for the UK joining the CPTPP has not been published yet)
Change in Wales GVA, long run % change (approximately 15 years)
Increase of 0.05% to <0.15% or 0.25% to <0.40% (depending on the extent of tariff liberalisation and reduction in non-tariff measures)
Increase of 0.00% to <0.05%
Increase of 0.00% to <0.05%
What role will the new Welsh Government play?
For the first time in over forty years, Brexit means that the UK Government is negotiating and joining a number of international agreements with other countries in its own right.
The devolution settlement means that the UK Government is responsible for negotiating and entering into international agreements on behalf of the four nations of the UK. However, once agreed, observing and implementing these agreements in devolved areas is a matter for the Welsh Government and Senedd.
Engagement between the previous Welsh Government and the UK Government on non-EU trade agreement negotiations took place through a then newly-established Ministerial Forum for Trade. However, a key Concordat on trade, intended to formalise how the devolved governments can engage in the negotiations themselves, hasn’t yet been agreed. In 2020, a Senedd committee voiced its concern at the delay in finalising these arrangements.
The UK Government has also proposed new ways of working for the UK’s four governments across over twenty policy areas (including fisheries, food and the environment) under its new Common Frameworks programme. In part, the programme aims to ensure that the four nations remain in compliance with the UK’s international obligations while also offering new opportunities for the devolved governments to participate in the UK’s international activities, such as representation at international bodies.
How can Sixth Senedd scrutiny of UK international affairs benefit Wales?
The Senedd’s approach to international affairs has undoubtedly changed during the Fifth Senedd. The Fifth Senedd’s EAAL Committee developed a dedicated scrutiny process for international agreements The Committee scrutinised over 100 trade and non-trade agreements. It took action by reporting on significant agreements, as well as engaging with the Welsh Government and relevant committees in other UK parliaments on matters of interest to Wales.
Examples of the scrutiny of international agreements by EAAL Committee in the fifth Senedd:
Trade agreements: roll-over of EU trade agreements including with Canada, South Korea and Singapore, as well as future new agreements being negotiated such as a potential UK-US trade agreement.
Non-trade agreements: citizens’ rights, elections and voting, fisheries, ports, air, road and rail transport, social security, science and research, judicial cooperation, film production and space.
Through careful scrutiny, the Sixth Senedd can make a difference in enhancing the value of international agreements to Wales. For example, by giving a voice to Welsh interests in situations where potential barriers to trade and opportunities for improvements are identified.
How can the Welsh Government maximise new opportunities in international affairs?
The international context in which the Sixth Senedd and new Welsh Government will operate will have changed significantly compared to the previous Senedd as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU and the economic impact of COVID-19. Against this backdrop, as well as the UK's evolving international relationships and new international agreements, the Welsh Government will need to consider if and how it wishes to promote Wales and Welsh businesses internationally.
In its international strategy, the previous Welsh Government set out its ambition to increase Wales’ profile and influence in the world, as well as to grow the Welsh economy by increasing exports and inward investment. The Welsh Government’s network of 21 international offices are intended to play an important role in promoting Wales internationally.
To maximise the opportunities presented by the UK’s new international agreements and changing international context, the new Welsh Government may need to re-consider its international presence, where it’s located, how its relationships with UK Government bodies and departments work and the focus of any strategy.
A new international chapter for Wales?
The way in which Welsh interests are reflected in the new international landscape will be a key issue in the Sixth Senedd.
There’ll be new international commitments in important devolved areas. Members of the new Senedd will need to understand what they mean for Wales and their constituents.
The previous Welsh Government said that the UK’s departure from the EU and the economic impact of COVID-19 means it’s essential for Wales to have a heightened international profile. The new Welsh Government will need to decide whether it shares this view and if so how it will deliver any international ambitions.