Iain McIver, SPICe’s European Union researcher spent a week with the UK in a Changing Europe team during the Scottish Parliament’s February recess. This blog, which has also been published by the UK in a Changing Europe is one of the outputs from that week.
The future relationship negotiations between the UK government and the EU have now begun. In a previous blog, I reflected on how the devolved administrations can seek to influence the UK government’s position in the negotiations. This time, I examine the potential role for the devolved legislatures in the process.
Given the potential breadth of the future relationship, it is likely that the powers of the devolved legislatures will be affected by what is agreed between the UK government and the EU. As a result, there is a need for the devolved legislatures to engage with the future relationship process.
Options for parliamentary scrutiny
The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019, which fell as a result of the general election, included clauses providing a role for the Westminster Parliament in negotiating the future relationship. These clauses were removed in the version of the bill published after the election and which subsequently went on to get Royal Assent. The removal of the clauses presents challenges for the Westminster Parliament in being able to scrutinise the future relationship negotiations.
The challenges for the UK Parliament in scrutinising the government’s negotiating position are likely to be magnified for the legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. So, how can the devolved legislatures engage with the future relationship negotiations?
Firstly, it is likely that much of the work carried out in the legislatures will take place in its committees. Both the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee and the Welsh Assembly’s External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee published useful reports highlighting different Brexit-related impacts during the Article 50 process. Both committees used their roles to gather evidence from stakeholders and highlight key priorities to the devolved and UK governments.
Whilst the committees’ respective conclusions were not always reflected in the UK government’s negotiating position, the work did allow the devolved legislatures to present their views on progress in the negotiations and the relevant priorities in Scotland and Wales.
How the devolved legislatures can engage in phase two
As we move into Brexit phase two, it is likely that both committees will continue to engage with the key issues at stake in the future relationship negotiations. Indeed, the Scottish Parliament’s European Committee has already taken evidence from leading experts, the Scottish government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs and the Secretary of State for Scotland. Further evidence sessions are planned including on key sectoral issues for Scotland such as fisheries. In a similar vein, the Welsh Assembly’s External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee is taking evidence on the future relationship negotiations having already undertaken an inquiry into Wales future relationship with the EU which led to a two-part report.
The Brexit-related work of the committees in the devolved legislatures has demonstrated that they can provide an avenue for stakeholders to feed in their views about Brexit. During Brexit phase two, the committees can once again provide an avenue for interested parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to highlight what kind of future relationship with the EU they’d like to see.
What is less easy to demonstrate is whether the devolved legislatures have successfully impacted the direction of the negotiations in terms of influencing the UK government’s negotiating position. However, this is arguably no different from the position faced by the devolved administrations in the negotiations.
It is however, easier to show a link between the work of the Scottish and Welsh committees and the outputs from their respective governments in terms of their identified priorities for the future relationship. For example, the conclusions of the Scottish Parliament’s European Committee report on continued participation in Erasmus was endorsed by the Scottish Government.
In a similar vein, the Welsh Assembly’s External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee report into Wales future relationship with the EU called for frictionless trade, free from tariff and non-tariff barriers. This recommendation was endorsed by the Welsh government in its Negotiating Priorities for Wales.
Access to information about the negotiations
As the negotiations make progress, a further challenge for the devolved legislatures will be how to monitor their progress and seek to highlight and influence developments. The lessons of the Article 50 process, and the changes to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill after the general election, suggest that devolved legislature scrutiny will be hampered by the scarcity of information from the UK government on the progress of the negotiations.
However, experience of the Article 50 negotiations shows that the European Commission will provide a stream of updates on the progress of the negotiations. This is part of the Commission’s commitment to transparency and perhaps more importantly to keep the European Parliament updated on the progress of the negotiations. This is because at the end of this process, it’s likely that the only legislature which will get a vote on the final agreement will be the European Parliament.
The information emanating from Brussels is likely to be the best way in which the devolved legislatures can monitor progress in the negotiations. This will allow them to shape future committee evidence sessions and other parliamentary business and ensure that they can react to the negotiations as they progress.
Whilst the primary role of the devolved legislatures is to scrutinise their own governments, the nature of the future relationship negotiations in terms of likely impact on the powers of the devolved legislatures bring them into the scope of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly.
Despite this obvious interest, the devolved legislatures face similar challenges in seeking to engage with and influence the future relationship negotiations as the devolved administrations. As a result, perhaps the key role the devolved legislatures can play in the process is to continue to provide an opportunity for stakeholders to air their views and to ensure that the key future relationship issues affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are highlighted.
Iain McIver, SPICe Research