What does the Brexit political declaration mean for Wales?

Published 30/11/2018   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

On 4 December, the Assembly will debate the draft EU withdrawal agreement and political declaration. This is in line with the First Minister’s intention that the Assembly will hold a vote on the agreement and political declaration before the ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons. The ‘meaningful vote’ is scheduled for 11 December, following five days of debate, and will ratify the withdrawal agreement, as required by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

Our previous blog post covers the content of the draft withdrawal agreement, while in this article we turn our eyes to the political declaration and the key issues in it for Wales. We’ll be publishing further blogs on themes emerging from the political declaration, and the potential economic impacts of the withdrawal agreement, so keep an eye out for these.

What is the political declaration?

On 25 November 2018, the European Council endorsed the draft text of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, as well as a political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the UK. Unlike the withdrawal agreement, the political declaration is not a legally binding text. Its purpose is to set the direction of the negotiations on the future relationship, which will begin once the UK has formally left the EU after 29 March 2019. It contains the key aspirations that both parties have agreed to, but many of the details are still to come.

In acknowledging what lies ahead, the declaration highlights that both parties will work towards ‘an overarching institutional framework’ in relation to specific areas of co-operation, and that it will be possible to review the future relationship in the future. It notes that a future framework could take the form of an association agreement. To read more about association agreements, have a look at this blog post.

What’s in it?

The External Affairs Committee (EAAL) has published an analysis of the political declaration as part of its report on the implications of the withdrawal agreement for Wales (PDF, 629KB). In summary, the declaration includes the following key points:

  • In terms of the economy, the declaration states that arrangements will be put into place to create a free trade area for trade in goods, that combines deep regulatory and customs co-operation, and that this will be underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition. The aim is that there will be no tariffs, fees, charges, quotas or the equivalent across all sectors of goods. While the EU and UK will each be able to set their own rules on quality standards, etc, they will put in place provisions to avoid unnecessary barriers to trade in goods. On services, however, the declaration does not aim at the same degree of closeness, aiming, instead, at a ‘level of liberalisation in trade…well beyond the [EU and UK’s] World Trade Organisation commitments’.
  • Another key section of the declaration for Wales relates to fisheries. The declaration notes that the UK will no longer be part of the Common Fisheries Policy, but instead will be an independent coastal state that can set its own rules. However, the declaration states that the UK and the EU will aim for co-operation bilaterally and internationally to ensure sustainable fishing. The UK and the EU intend to use their ‘best endeavours’ to conclude a new fisheries agreement covering access to waters and quotas in time to determine fishing opportunities for the first year after the transition period.
  • In terms of the environment, the declaration includes key areas for environmental co-operation in the areas of climate change, sustainable development and cross-border pollution. Specifically on climate change, it states that the future relationship should reaffirm the commitments that the EU and the UK have made to international climate change pledges such as the Paris agreement. As noted above, however, the declaration is not legally binding.
  • In terms of future co-operation in the area of health, the declaration states that the UK and EU should co-operate in the same way that the EU does in its existing arrangements with third countries. This would involve co-operation in international fora on prevention, detection, preparation for and response to established and emerging threats to health security.
  • On citizens’ rights, the political agreement states that an essential prerequisite to any future relationship will be that it is underpinned by long-standing commitments to the fundamental rights of individuals, including continued adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights and its system of enforcement—i.e. respecting judgments of the European Court of Human Rights. In terms of specifics going beyond what is in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, it aims at visa-free travel between the UK and the EU for short visits (like holidays). It also envisages undefined “arrangements” for people who move between the two for a period because of their jobs or businesses.
  • To ensure the functioning of the future relationship, institutional arrangements will be made for its management, supervision, implementation and development over time, as well as for the resolution of disputes and enforcement.

What does the Welsh Government think about it?

In the EAAL committee meeting on 26 November, Mark Drakeford, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, responded to questions from the committee on the draft agreement and the political declaration. Specifically on the political declaration, the Cabinet Secretary stated that it ‘falls short’ of what the Welsh Government was expecting and that neither the agreement or the political declaration are likely to secure the support of the Welsh Government in a vote.

The First Minister confirmed this in a written statement on 27 November, in which he outlined the Government’s assessment of the withdrawal agreement and political declaration. In the statement, the First Minister states that although the political declaration has been developed since an outline was published on 14 November, it fails to provide clear guarantees about a future relationship with the EU that would protect the interests of Wales and the UK as a whole. The main points in the Government’s assessment are:

  • On the customs arrangements, the Welsh Government acknowledge that the declaration includes provisions for customs alignment with the EU, and that it sets out an ambition to deliver tariff-free trade between the UK and the EU. However, it notes that while the declaration sets out the intention to build and improve on the single customs territory provided for in the withdrawal agreement, this is not a clear commitment that the UK will look to agree a permanent customs union with the EU.
  • The statement notes that while the declaration includes reference to the importance of regulatory alignment for goods, it reflects the UK Government’s decision that services sectors should not be aligned in the same way, which could affect the £700 million of services sector exports from Wales to EU countries. It goes on to say that the UK Government’s position on the services sector will negatively impact trade and damage the manufacturing sector, which provides services and traded goods.
  • The statement also says that the political declaration does not include a detailed migration and mobility framework and is based on the assumption of very limited rights for people to move between the UK and the EU for purposes other than short-term visits. The Government’s view is that this will deprive UK citizens of opportunities to move to live and work in other EU countries and is likely to pose problems of labour supply for businesses and public services.

In conclusion, the First Minister reiterated that the Welsh Government does not support the political declaration as it stands, saying that the debate on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration will be an opportunity for the National Assembly to send a clear message to the UK Government about the priorities of Wales:

‘The outline of the UK’s future relationship with the EU in the Political Declaration does not protect or reflect the interests of Wales and the rest of the UK. We welcome the moves the UK Government has made towards our position, but the Political Declaration falls far short of providing the stability and certainty needed for the long term. The UK Government must embrace the future relationship with the EU set out in Securing Wales’s Future.’

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Article by Peter Hill, National Assembly for Wales Research Service