What roles will the Welsh Government and Assembly have in future trade negotiations?

Published 16/03/2020   |   Last Updated 18/10/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

Now the UK has left the European Union, the UK Government intends to agree new free trade agreements with countries around the world.The Welsh Government has called on the UK Government to ensure it has a formal role when negotiations relate to areas of devolved competence such as agriculture and the environment. However, it is still not clear what role the Welsh Government will have in these negotiations.

Since the autumn of 2016, the External Affairs and Additional Legislation (EAAL) Committee has been considering the implications for Wales of the UK Government’s developing trade policy. The Committee has also considered how the Assembly should engage with and scrutinise future UK international trade agreements.

The Committee published a report on UK International agreements after Brexit: a role for the Assembly (PDF, 191KB) on 18 December 2019. The Committee made six recommendations. The Welsh Government’s response (PDF, 292 KB) accepted two, and accepted four in principle. The Committee questioned the Minister for International Relations and Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan AM, on the Government’s response on 10 February. The report will be debated in Plenary on 18 March.

Is the negotiation of trade agreements reserved to Westminster?

International relations and the regulation of international trade are reserved matters which are outside the Assembly’s competence. However, implementing obligations arising from international agreements that relate to devolved matters is primarily the responsibility of the devolved governments and legislatures.

There is currently no formal mechanism to ensure the Welsh Government or the Assembly is consulted in the negotiation and confirmation of international trade agreements. The UK Government has however recognised that although negotiating international agreements is a reserved matter, devolved governments ‘have a strong and legitimate interest where they intersect with areas of devolved competence’.

What is the UK Government’s position?

In February 2019, the UK Government published a Command Paper: Processes for making free trade agreements after the United Kingdom has left the European Union. The paper detailed their intention to form a new Ministerial Forum for International Trade to ensure regular discussion through a formal structure between the UK and devolved Governments on trade. The Ministerial Forum met for the first time on 23 January 2020.

Discussions between the UK and Devolved Governments have since moved in the direction of developing a Concordat. In a letter to the Committee on 5 November 2019, the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language stated that Theresa May’s Government gave assurances that trade negotiations would not start without the Concordat in place. The Minister told the Committee on 10 February 2020 that reaching an agreement on the Concordat had been affected by Ministerial changes at the UK Government level, as well as the 2019 general election.

What role does the Welsh Government want in trade negotiations?

The Welsh Government has stated (PDF, 184KB) that it should be involved in the process of setting negotiation mandates and engaged in the negotiations where they relate to devolved matters. It argues that although international relations is a reserved matter, implementing the obligations arising from the negotiations within devolved competence, is the responsibility of the devolved administrations.

The Welsh Government has stated (PDF, 171KB) that it should be ‘fully involved’ in the negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, and in any Joint Committee established to oversee the implementation of the agreement.

Following a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee (European Negotiations) in Cardiff in January 2020, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove MP, suggested that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will have a say on EU trade talks. However following the first round of the negotiations which took place between 2 and 5 March, the Welsh and Scottish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive issued a joint statement calling on the UK Government to engage with them on the negotiations.

What has the EAAL Committee said about a role for the Assembly?

The Committee published a report on UK International agreements after Brexit: a role for the Assembly (PDF, 191KB) on 18 December 2019. The report provides an outline approach for how the Assembly, as the legislature, should engage with and scrutinise future UK international trade agreements. This includes possible agreements with non-EU countries such as the US, as well as the UK-EU future relationship agreements.

The Committee’s report outlines what role the Assembly should have at all stages of the development of international agreements:

  1. Early engagement and the setting of the UK mandate – the Welsh Government should lay its outline approach in the Assembly, detailing its negotiating objectives and assessment of the economic impact of the agreement. The Welsh Government should also make clear if implementing the eventual agreement will affect or constrain the Assembly’s legislative competence. Also, in circumstances where the Welsh Government intends to agree to the UK Government negotiating an international agreement that would constrain the future legislative competence of the Assembly, then the Assembly’s consent should be sought before the Welsh Government seeks such agreement with the UK Government.
  2. Negotiation phase – the Welsh Government should regularly update and share information with the Assembly on how negotiations are progressing. This approach will rely on the UK Government ensuring that the Welsh Government has a meaningful role in the process.
  3. At the end of negotiations – international agreements have the ability to adjust the devolved competence of the Assembly. The Committee therefore called for a convention to be established between the Assembly and the UK Parliament - as with the legislative consent convention – to ensure that the Assembly’s views are considered before an agreement is ratified by the UK Parliament.
  4. Implementing the international agreements – where Welsh interests diverge from other parts of the UK, the Welsh Government should pursue differential implementation of international agreements. This offers a means of ensuring specific Welsh interests can be observed within the context of a more general UK-wide agreement.

What next?

How far the Assembly can engage with and scrutinise future international agreements is likely to relate to what role, if any, the Welsh Government is able to secure. With negotiations with the EU already underway, and negotiations with the US expected to start this month (March), the Welsh Government’s role remains unclear.

The External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee’s report on UK International agreements after Brexit: a role for the Assembly (PDF, 191KB) was published on 18 December 2019, and will be debated in Plenary on 18 March 2020.

Article by Rhun Davies, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales