5. Debate on the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee Report, 'Inquiry into UK-EU governance'

– in the Senedd at 3:20 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:20, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

Item 5 this afternoon is the debate on the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee report, 'Inquiry into UK-EU governance'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Huw Irranca-Davies.

(Translated)

Motion NDM8488 Huw Irranca-Davies

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the report of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee titled 'Inquiry into UK-EU governance', which was laid in the Table Office on 27 November 2023.

(Translated)

Motion moved.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 3:21, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. The UK's relationship with the European Union remains of considerable importance to citizens in Wales, and continues to affect many aspects of our everyday lives.

Since the UK left the European Union four years ago, complex new structures have emerged under the withdrawal agreement and the trade and co-operation agreement, in terms of governing the relationship between the UK and the EU.

Responsibility for implementing large areas of these agreements rests with the Senedd and the Welsh Government, as they cut across significant areas of devolved policy or interest.

The development and implementation of new structures has involved continued negotiation, adaptation and adjustment, as both sides grapple with the enormity of the changes to our relationship. It is not surprising therefore that much of the focus has been on the content of the relationship between the UK and the EU, and agreements that govern it, rather than how it is managed and who has a say in the decisions that are taken.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 3:22, 21 February 2024

Our inquiry sought to consider and address these quite fundamental issues of representation and engagement and decision making, and to suggest how improvements could be made. We are very grateful to all those who took time to contribute by providing evidence about their views and their experiences, including during a visit to Brussels in September last year. 

We heard clearly from witnesses in the UK and in the EU that the signing of the Windsor framework, the pause in negotiations brought about by elections on both sides, and the upcoming implementation review of the trade and co-operation agreement, has created a rare opportunity to reflect on what Wales and the UK wants from its future relationship with the EU. We feel we should take advantage of this opportunity to consider how the relationship has worked to date and to take positive and constructive steps to improve its management in future.

Whilst agreeing with the spirit of our report, the Welsh Government has only accepted five of the 20 recommendations directed at it in full. That is somewhat disappointing given what we believe is an opportunity we now have in front of us, but I do remain hopeful that positive outcomes will arise from the recommendations we made.  

Witnesses told us that the role of devolved Governments in UK-EU decision making has diminished post Brexit. This is at odds with the significant power that rests with the governance structures of the agreements, which allow decisions to be taken that could constrain the use of devolved powers by Welsh Ministers and the Senedd. So, we concluded that there is a compelling and positive case for returning to a position where devolved Governments are properly consulted on areas within their responsibility. A better understanding of devolved issues at all levels will provide important practical intelligence, experience and evidence to the UK Government, including on potential barriers to implementation, as well as avoiding unnecessary costs and delays.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 3:25, 21 February 2024

Each of the four Governments of the UK have their own expertise and experience that they can bring to the table. Indeed, prior to the UK's exit from the EU, it was common practice for the devolved Governments to be engaged in the development of a UK position on EU proposals. The value of this collective expertise should not be underestimated. Providing more meaningful engagement and input for the devolved Governments could generate ideas and solutions that would benefit the whole of the UK.

Calls for a greater role for devolved legislatures and Governments in the new structures have often led to claims that such an approach will somehow undermine the UK position, or that the difficulty of the decisions that need to be made require centralisation more and a single voice, but this misses the constructive case to be made for a diversity of voices on both sides. Differences in geographies, histories, economies and cultures mean that the nations and the regions and areas of the UK and the EU have developed their own knowledge and their own solutions. So, there is, therefore, strong evidence to support the need for an enhanced role for devolved Governments in the governance structures.

Inter-governmental relations and agreement on UK-EU relations may have declined post Brexit, but they could easily be improved, so our report sets out, therefore, a series of recommendations on how more voices could be included in the future, developing UK-EU relationship. Three actions could be taken immediately. Firstly, an urgent review by the Governments of the UK of the principles and terms upon which devolved Governments are engaged in UK-EU relations, and the adoption of a new memorandum of understanding on this very issue. Secondly, meetings of the Interministerial Group on UK-EU Relations should be called well in advance of key UK-EU meetings to enable proper consultation and engagement with the devolved Governments. And, in addition, devolved Governments should be provided with an opportunity to suggest agenda items to be discussed between the UK and the EU. We believe that's a mature approach to this working. And thirdly, the committee supports the Welsh Government's call for it to be given a fuller role in the governance structures of the trade and co-operation agreement, and to be given observer status at governance meetings under the withdrawal agreement when issues related to Wales, such as ports and other issues, are discussed.

The First Minister has accepted in principle our recommendations for the improvements to the inter-governmental structures, but he says he does not expect to see progress on them with the current UK Government. However, we remain convinced that there is still much to be gained from taking a positive, proactive approach to persuading others of the benefits such changes would bring. So, we hope the Welsh Government will be ambitious over the next 12 months in seeking the improvements we suggest, taking advantage of this rare opportunity we have now been presented with. 

Stakeholders in Wales and in Brussels highlighted to us that they did not know what the Welsh Government's strategic priorities for UK-EU relations are, and that, during times of limited resource, it is even more important that they can do this to focus their own efforts to support the delivery of Welsh priorities. So, if Wales is to make the most of the opportunity that the next 12 months gives us, it is vital that a mechanism can be found to clearly articulate the strategic priorities of Welsh Government in a very open and a transparent way. There's a clear desire for them to do so from stakeholders we spoke to. This would enable all bodies and all organisations to work in partnership with Welsh Government to deliver positive, tangible outcomes for communities right across Wales.

We recommended that these priorities should be articulated clearly by the Welsh Government, either in a dedicated strategy or within a refreshed international strategy, and also that the Welsh Government should begin consulting civil society and stakeholders in Wales on these priorities and its vision immediately. And, by the way, this echoes, of course, similar calls made by the Senedd's culture committee as well. 

Now, the First Minister has said a dedicated EU strategy is not needed, but a soft refresh of the international strategy before the end of this Senedd term will make the European dimension of the strategy more explicit. It is true, as the First Minister says, that not much is likely to happen in UK-EU relations in the next 12 months. We understand that. However, that's precisely why work to develop the priorities and to engage with stakeholders should take place right now, so Wales is in the very best possible position to set out its views when business returns to normal. We hope that the refresh of the international strategy therefore takes place sooner rather than later in this Senedd term.

I would like to touch on one other aspect of our report before drawing my opening remarks to a close. Evidence that the committee gathered in Wales and in Brussels shows the value of civil society advice and engagement in the management of the UK-EU relationship. It is businesses and organisations on the ground that feel the impact of practical barriers first and are often the ones that hold most of the solutions.

So, the Welsh Government and the Senedd would do a disservice to Wales if they do not better engage with these groups on this issue. At present, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action is the only voice specifically from Wales on the civil society group established under the trade and co-operation agreement. It is only able to attend due to grant funding that may end this very year, and this cannot be a sustainable situation for the long term. So, we recommended that the Welsh Government should re-constitute a European advisory group fit for the current circumstance to inform its European work, and should call on the UK Government to provide funding to UK organisations participating in UK-EU civil society structures and, in the absence of such funding, should consider support itself.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 3:31, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

Dirprwy Lywydd, I note that the First Minister says that he will not progress the issue of a new advisory group as a priority, as it will be for his successor to consider. We will certainly continue to advocate strongly for this group to be convened, and we look forward to raising these issues with his successor at the appropriate time.

We welcome the response from the Llywydd on behalf of the Senedd Commission, which states that Senedd Commission officials are happy to explore our recommendations on supporting further civil society engagement with the committee, other relevant committee Chairs and Members of the Senedd who have relevant roles. We hope that this can provide an opportunity to make sure that these important voices are heard. Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Photo of James Evans James Evans Conservative 3:32, 21 February 2024

I'd like to thank the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee for giving a very thorough overview of what our report says. It probably took a lot of what I had to say away, so I'm going to have to ad lib a little bit to get through it. I'd also like to thank all the committee staff who helped pull all this together, because without them, we wouldn't be able to do these pieces of work, and also the people we met during our evidence gathering, because speaking to those experts and people out there who know what they're talking about is always very good for people like me, who, shall we say, are not experts in the field of EU governance or negotiations.

But, as the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee outlined, our future relationship with the EU remains one of the most important international relationships we have. After we left the EU four years ago, the process to get where we are now has not been a very smooth one—it's been a bit bumpy and a bit up and down—but I think we're in lot more of a settled place. And, as a committee, it isn't our role to comment on what perhaps the negotiation should look like, but it is our role to look at tangible ways in which we can ensure that the voice of Wales is heard within the EU and also within the UK Government, and especially with the future review coming of the trade and co-operation agreement, we need to make sure that the Welsh Government and this Senedd have as much opportunity to feed into that as possible.

The governance arrangements are a key element in which we can ensure that Wales has a voice. We're told that the EU Commission and the UK Government could make unilateral decisions that could change the withdrawal agreement and the trade and co-operation agreement without any devolved parliamentary oversight. That isn't right, and that's what we need to make sure through what we've done through recommendations, which we hope the Government will take forward, that we can actually have a say in some of these negotiations to make sure that, with some of the areas in which the EU now and the UK Government have power over us here, we actually have more input into that to make sure that it's in the best interest of Wales.

That is why it's paramount for us to closely monitor the changes—which is in our report—to EU law that could impact businesses here in Wales and throughout the UK, because we need to make sure that none of our businesses here are detrimentally affected by changes to EU law. So, it's very important that we do play a key role out in Europe to make sure that nothing changes to our detriment here.

It was said throughout the inquiry, and by people we met, that more recent political changes in Westminster have allowed for a more settled period between the UK and the EU. When we were in Brussels, it was telling that everybody we met said that it hasn't been easy since we voted to leave, but there seems now a willingness and a focus from both sides—from the UK Government and the European Commission—to make this agreement work, in the best interests of both parties. As a committee, we all felt that the new stable relationship gives us an opportunity to relook at the governance structures, and how we can play a more active role within the current structures, which I know that the Chair, and my colleague Alun Davies, and other Members do have.

The committee made a number of recommendations to the Government, and I just want to focus on a few of them. Recommendation 3 sets out our position that we believe the Welsh Government should be given full status at the partnership council, and continue to be given observer status at all the relevant meetings. We think this is very important, because we want to make sure that the voice of the devolved Government here in Wales is heard—and that's not just us here in Wales, that's also the devolved administrations in Scotland, and also in Northern Ireland—to make sure that any decisions that are made, you have the opportunity to participate, to make sure that we're not forgotten about.

Recommendation 5 calls for a new memorandum of understanding for the Interministerial Group on UK-EU Relations, so that it's clear, I think, the level of engagement that the devolved administrations have, as the current model is very ad hoc. From what we're led to believe, sometimes Ministers are included, sometimes they're not included in things, and I don't think that's any appropriate way to be running an agreement or a trade agreement.

Recommendation 11 asks for the Welsh Government's direct participation in EU networks. I think that being in some of these networks is vital for Wales if we are to succeed as a nation as well, to make sure that we are information sharing between institutions. Alun Davies talked about something when he was in the Falkland Islands, of a living bridge—I'm sure he'll talk about that again—of how we do talk between institutions. It's very positive that the UK has rejoined the Horizon network as well, so we can share information there. And I would encourage policy makers elsewhere to look at other EU institutions we can join, because I think that is the best way to learn and to get expertise. We can't redo the wheel here, but if we can learn from somewhere else, that is also very important.

Recommendation 14 also talks about transparency, and the need for the Welsh Government to be more open with the Senedd about meetings they have when they talk about UK-EU relations. And I think it would help us here as a Senedd, and all the relevant committees, to be more informed about the work that the Welsh Government is doing and the future vision that the Welsh Government have for working within the European Union. I know that the two leadership candidates aren't here, but as the Chair said, it would be very interesting to know, when we do have a new First Minister here, what his vision is and what their vision is for the future relationship.

But as a number of recommendations also call, it's for Senedd Members to have an active engagement within the EU and its structures. As I've said before, we may have left the European Union—and I can see that I'm testing the Deputy Llywydd's patience here with the time—we may have left the European Union, but we haven't left Europe. And I think that, if the voice of Wales is to be heard, we need to be given as much opportunity to go out to Brussels, to go out to European countries, to actually put the case forward for Wales, to say how we can help shape some of the future policy within the EU. And I think that's something, perhaps not for the Government, but for the Commission here, to look at how we can actually actively do that.

And finally—I will conclude, Deputy Llywydd; this is my last point—this will probably be the last LJC committee report that I comment on, well, maybe, but we'll have to see. So, I just want to take this opportunity to thank all the clerks, the research team, and the legal team in the Senedd for all their help and support when I was a member of the committee. I look forward to hearing the Government's response, and all other Members who are going to respond to this report.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:38, 21 February 2024

Just for confirmation, you can comment upon any report in the Chamber as a Member of the Senedd. Adam Price.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru 3:39, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

As the Chair did such an excellent job in giving us a comprehensive overview of the content of the report, I just want to focus on three or four of the 23 recommendations in the report.

Recommendation 2 called on the Welsh Government to note how they are monitoring policy and legislative developments in the European Union after we left the union. And it was slightly disappointing, I have to say, to read the Government's response, which said that, as the United Kingdom is no longer a member of the European Union, the Government doesn't monitor policy developments and legislative developments across the European Union as a matter of course. Now, it’s surprising for me because, as I always emphasised, and as many of us in this place always emphasised, this is the most important market for Wales. So, it’s still very significant indeed, if we want to access that market, to know what is happening in terms of regulation.

Some of us, those who were opposed to leaving the European Union, also pointed out the risk that environmental standards and standards in terms of consumer protection, and so on, would reduce when leaving the union. Well, one way of ensuring that that doesn’t happen—as much as we're able, given the limitations placed upon us—is to have an overview of what the European Union is doing, as it were.

And, of course, in section 11 of the Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Act 2018 that we passed in this place, there was a clause that would have meant that Welsh Ministers would have the power to align regulations still devolved to Wales anew, having left. Unfortunately, we turned our backs on that legislation. In Scotland, they’ve retained it, and in section 1 of their Act, they have the power to continue to align regulations in Scotland with new regulations in the European Union. And, as a result of that, the committee that almost corresponds to our committee in the Scottish Parliament has created an EU law tracker that is co-ordinated by Queen’s University Belfast, which produces regular reports. The first has just been published in September and it sets out very clearly all of the new laws that have been passed by the European Union. Well, why don’t we just use that information? It shows that, last year—. The numbers that we’re talking about are relatively low. There were only two new directives that were passed last year in the European Union. So, it’s not too huge a number. There were a number of technical changes of course, but in terms of the major changes, they can be tracked. Why don’t we take our opportunities to build on the work that’s being done in Scotland?

Just very briefly, on recommendation 11, in relation to Wales participating in European networks in order to make up for what we have lost in terms of influence and so on, the Government of course notes in its response that the Welsh Government is a member of networks such as the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions and so forth, but there are important networks that we could be part of that we’re not part of at the moment. The main one for the regions or the stateless nations is the Assembly of European Regions. Why isn’t Wales a member of that? There are opportunities for this Senedd. The Conference of European Regional Legislative Assemblies represents regional parliaments and it’s considering inviting regions from outwith the European Union to be associate members of CALRE. So, there are opportunities for us. Why don’t we look into those possibilities?

And in agreeing with the comments made by my former fellow member of the committee, it’s important that Senedd Members are encouraged to go to Brussels. In the Llywydd’s response to the report, it was surprising and disappointing to read that only one Member of the Senedd has visited Brussels during this Parliament. We do have to support and encourage as many Members of the Senedd as possible, in different ways, to go there to ensure that Wales is still on the agenda.

Photo of Alun Davies Alun Davies Labour 3:44, 21 February 2024

I'm grateful to the Chair and members of the committee for the way in which they have described the report and its conclusions. I'd like, as others have done, to start my contribution by thanking the secretariat and the witnesses who helped us write and prepare and publish this report. As has just been said, this report, in many ways, goes to the heart of our governance and the way that we are governed in Wales today. There are a number of different threads and themes that I believe we have concluded and should be addressed by this Parliament as a whole.

Photo of Alun Davies Alun Davies Labour 3:45, 21 February 2024

The first theme is the shift in power. We all remember the 'Take back control' sloganising of 2016. But the reality is that control has moved from parliamentary democracy to executive diktat, and that is not right. This Parliament has less oversight of the matters under consideration in the relationship between the EU and the UK than it had prior to the UK leaving the EU. That is not right. We have, instead, a complex web of new structures, and, of course, the more complex a structure, the less accountable it is, the more difficult it is to be transparent. And what that means is there is less opportunity for us, as Members, to provide parliamentary oversight of those structures and the decisions taken by members of those structures. So, we've seen the governance of our relationship of the EU, which used to take place in the open sunshine of democratic debate, moving to the shadows of civil service and Government Minister-to-Minister decision making. The democracy that we were promised has simply disappeared, and that is something that we need to address as a Parliament.

That lack of transparency is clear throughout the new arrangements. Our ability to understand which decisions are even being debated is limited, let alone then having an ability to influence and shape those decisions. As a part of the EU, as a full member of the EU, our people were in the meetings, not just in the corridors; they were in the meetings taking decisions. Today, we can barely find a pass to get into the building. Our ability to influence decisions that have a real extraterritorial impact on people in Wales today has not simply been diminished, it's been removed. And that's something that we need to address. But we've also seen a transfer of power. We've seen competence on a number of different issues move from here to Westminster, and that's not been done either by democratic debate or decision, it's been done by removing the rights of this place to legislate in a way that the people of Wales through referendum have sought and wished to see. That is something that has happened with minimal scrutiny, and that is something else we need to address. 

Looking at the report and the potential for this place and the Welsh Government to take these matters forward, I think, first of all, one thing we should do is pay tribute to the work of Derek Vaughan. The appointment of Derek Vaughan as the representative of the Welsh Government in Brussels is something that has paid dividends many times over. Derek is well known in the institutions and the different parts of the European Union, and he is doing a superb job making sure that Wales is represented at the heart of Brussels. But we need to go further than this. 

I very much agree with the points made by Adam Price in his contribution, and also the points made by James Evans in his, in the way that we need to look at how we shape decisions and understand decisions, and that means more investment. I'm looking forward to the Counsel General's response on behalf of the Government, but I did notice that the Government were far more anxious to accept recommendations where they had limited influence, rather than recommendations that would have involved action from the Welsh Government. I hope that we will see more action from the Welsh Government and more proactive action from the Welsh Government to ensure that we do invest in understanding the dynamics of decision making within the institutions of the EU.

But also, there are things that we need to do here. We need to look hard at interparliamentarianism. We need to look hard at how we work with other parliaments and parliamentarians, both within the United Kingdom and across the European Union. There are opportunities for us to create new forms of accountability, new forms of oversight, new forms of transparency, to ensure that the people we represent and their views are represented when decisions are taken. So, there are opportunities here for us as well.

I will finish on this point, Deputy Presiding OfficerThe Commission of this Senedd has an absolute responsibility to ensure that Members are able to spend time working in Brussels and that committees visit Brussels, but we also need to ensure that we have an agenda for that work. The Chair of the committee, in introducing the report, outlined the time available to us, and we do have opportunities. With European elections taking place in June of this year, a UK general election taking place later in the year, and a potential change of UK Government, we have an opportunity now to change our approach and to change the way in which we engage with our European institutions. The TCA review next year is an opportunity for us to do so. It's an opportunity we can't afford to waste.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 3:50, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

I'd also like to express my thanks to the committee Chair and the members of the committee for this crucial work that they have done on this report.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 3:51, 21 February 2024

When I first came to the Senedd in 2019, Dirprwy Lywydd, the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee and I sat together, alongside other Members, on the external affairs committee, and we looked then at the post-Brexit world, which was filled with uncertainties and known unknowns, and five years later, we are each chairing committees that scrutinise the realities that we didn't know and could not have known then. First, we had the withdrawal agreement and then the trade and co-operation agreement. Both established over 30 new forums for the UK and EU to discuss their relationship, and neither provided for Wales to be represented.  

Since 2021, the committee I Chair has made a number of observations that supplement and strengthen the LJC committee's findings. We agree that observer status for devolved representatives at the parliamentary partnership assembly is unsatisfactory, and we've echoed its call for their full participation. Our committee has supported the Welsh Government's requests to attend joint committee meetings where matters of significance to Wales are discussed, as has the LJC committee. The Welsh Government remains outside of these meetings, unable to represent Wales in key matters regarding the island of Ireland, including the Northern Ireland protocol and Windsor framework.  

Dirprwy Lywydd, as the committee responsible for international relations, Wales's relationship with Ireland, our nearest international neighbour, is one that is very close to our hearts, particularly since our inquiry into the relationship between those two nations. We've also called for a dedicated EU strategy from the Welsh Government, and for the EU to be given 'priority relationship' status in its international strategy. Early on in the sixth Senedd, we raised concerns that challenges faced by stakeholders in engaging in EU-UK relations has led to reduced representation of Welsh interests, and that could further reduce in the future. For that reason, the Senedd Commission's response to the LJC's report to engage civil society organisations and its offer to work with committee chairs, I think, are both very welcome.  

Earlier this month, our committee began our new inquiry on culture and the new relationship with the EU. The complexities of the trade and co-operation agreement in the post-Brexit world have already been laid bare to us, even at this early stage. A lot of the work that's been set out this afternoon, done by the LJC Committee, I think will enrich our understanding of the frameworks that are underpinning all of this.

In closing, I would just like to thank again the committee for this hugely significant piece of work, and once more to put on record our committee's support for what they are doing. I'm more convinced than ever of the need for a Welsh voice in UK-EU relations

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru 3:54, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

I'd also like to thank the committee for this important report, and the First Minister for his response. However, it appears that the committee and the Welsh Government have taken very different positions in dealing with the issues raised. Although the committee showed that there is a lack of sub-state representation on the international stage since Brexit, it does not appear that the Welsh Government wants to stir things up, because they assume that the next Westminster Government will have better inter-governmental relations. That may seem reasonable on one hand because the inter-governmental relationship between Cathays Park and Whitehall has reached a very low point in recent years. That is, of course, also true about the relationship with the EU as well. But you should not base a relationship on the parties in power. That's not the way to lay the foundations for a healthy inter-governmental relationship. Governments and people change over time. That's the nature of life and politics. We need to lay foundations that are sustainable in the long term, whoever is in power, that ensures that the voice of Wales, as part of the diverse range of voices, as Huw Irranca-Davies said, is heard.

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru 3:55, 21 February 2024

Dirprwy Lywydd, if I may, I'd like to make two further points. Recommendation 21 says that the UK Government should ensure proper financial support for Welsh organisations to take part in the UK domestic advisory group and civil society forum. As Huw Irranca-Davies said, the voice of Welsh organisations is so important on a European level. Unfortunately, in his response, the Prif Weinidog stated that the UK Government has already confirmed that they are not willing to provide such funding. This, Dirprwy Lywydd, is a clear inequality of power, as it will mean that Welsh organisations are being cut out of important conversations, and this will impact our representation on the international level.

Secondly, I'd like to echo Alun Davies's comments with regard to Derek Vaughan's role as the Welsh Government representative to Europe. The Prif Weinidog recognised, in his response, that having a representative in Europe has been of great benefit to Wales. It has allowed Welsh Ministers to have that pass into the European Parliament. It has made possible meetings with the European Commission, and it has improved our visibility throughout the European Union. Clearly, this level of engagement was crucial during Brexit, but surely it is even more important now that we have left. After all, the European Union remains by far our biggest export partner. I see that the contract for this role is expiring at the end of the year, and there's no talk of it being extended. As James Evans said, we have not left Europe. My question is simply this: considering the democratic deficit that Alun Davies has passionately mentioned, considering that we no longer have Welsh Members of the European Parliament, and that the role of the representative is seemingly coming to an end, who will speak on Wales's behalf in the European Union? Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:57, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

I call on the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, Mick Antoniw.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour

(Translated)

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm grateful to the committee for this important, thorough and detailed report, and to the Members who have contributed. I will respond to the various points in a moment.

Let me start by saying how pleased I am that the committee recognises the trade and co-operation agreement as the critical foundation for the vital economic relationship that Wales and the rest of the UK still has with the European Union. Although the agreement is a poor alternative to ensuring the economic benefits and efficiencies that we enjoyed as Members of the European Union, this is the only choice that we have, and we have to ensure that it works as well as possible. You will see from the Welsh Government response that we agree with much of what's contained within the report and its useful focus.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 3:59, 21 February 2024

Let me first address the wider context. The report highlights that the work on a new UK-EU relationship is not done. For our part, in Wales, we do need to continue to protect our economic, social and environmental standards, but also seek improvements to the status quo, where we can. We must do this in part through our own relationship with the UK Government. There has been continuous development of the trade and co-operation agreement since its agreement in difficult circumstances just over three years ago. UK Government relations with the EU have certainly improved with the agreement of the Windsor framework a year ago. I take this opportunity once again to welcome the restoration of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive. We trust that this can all be made to work without destabilising the trade and co-operation agreement or the Windsor framework.

Photo of Mick Antoniw Mick Antoniw Labour 4:00, 21 February 2024

If I can turn to the report itself and draw out four Welsh Government relationships, firstly with the Senedd, then with the UK Government and other devolved Governments, with civil society and stakeholders, and also with the EU. Firstly, the Welsh Government’s engagement with the Senedd. Well, of course, we are keen to work with the Senedd to maximise Wales’s interests in the evolving UK-EU relationship. And we are, indeed, sympathetic to providing the fullest and the most up-to-date information on the operation of the trade and co-operation agreement. However, at present, the UK system is just not efficient enough to allow that to happen. We also need to recognise meetings can include sensitive discussions for which full transparency is sometimes not always possible.

Our relationship with the UK Government and other devolved Governments is key to ensuring Wales’s interests are reflected in the trade and co-operation agreement. Let me be frank without being unduly critical of the UK Government: the negotiation of the trade and co-operation agreement and its initial implementation were rushed, and there was not sufficient time to develop good systems to support it. It was not clear at the time that the then UK Government were interested in engaging with devolved Governments to make the system work with devolution settlements. I am pleased that we are now in a more constructive phase, though improvements do need to continue to be made.

As regards my third theme, Welsh Government’s engagement with civil society and stakeholders, if I can just make clear that our commitment is to doing this as fully and seriously as possible, within all the constraints that we have. Sadly, the UK Government has not put stakeholder engagement at the heart of its approach to implementing the trade and co-operation agreement. We will push the UK Government to do more, and the report is an extremely useful tool for us to do so and a very helpful analysis. Overall, I am very pleased that there is effective Welsh input to the UK domestic advisory group.

Finally, looking at Wales’s relationship with the EU, it is culturally obvious and a matter of geographical fact that Wales remains a European nation. Combining that with our continued economic interdependency means that we must still seek to be closely aligned and diplomatically engaged with the EU and its constituent regional and national Governments.

If I can perhaps finish by reiterating what the First Minister has already said. We would be very pleased to see positive changes in the operation of the trade and co-operation agreement, and in the wider UK-EU relationship. But that is, to be totally honest, not realistically going to happen substantively until elections in both the EU and the UK over the coming year. These provide real opportunities on both sides for fresher engagement and a more positive spirit looking forward, and we will do all we can to facilitate and to support that.

If I can just comment on a few of the points that have been made, because this is an ongoing debate and there are many opportunities, and this report is a very helpful and important contribution to that. Just to say I very much welcome the point that was made that we should have full status at the Committee of the Regions partnership council. When I represented Wales on the Committee of the Regions, I very much pushed and pushed, when we knew we were leaving the EU, to ensure that that would happen. It was, however, blocked, by the UK Government. They did not want us to have that voice and we were prevented from doing so. 

In terms of the other points, Alun made some very important points, I think, on the shift in power, and that's very clear from the report in some of the references that are made within the report. I noticed the comments of Dr Elin Royles, who was quoted in the report as saying that departure from the EU has reduced the Welsh Government's ability to influence the UK Government and the EU, and that is very, very clear. The subnational status that we had is one that is gone, but we need an alternative status in order to resurrect that particular role. It won't happen with the current Government. 

Adam Price made some important points on monitoring. I'm quite familiar and I've had discussions with you about the situation with the monitoring that goes on in Scotland. Of course, there is monitoring that goes on in terms of the very specific portfolios within Welsh Government that are relevant and are observing and keeping an eye on what is happening within Europe, and the relevance there. But there have been—and I think everyone would recognise—over the past year or two, very, very many pressures in respect of monitoring what was happening even at UK Government level in terms of those aspects that were affecting Wales. And I know even from the Scottish side there is a tsunami of so much data and information on events occurring within the European Union, which is of course an ongoing process over many years, that the ability to actually extract from that what is relevant and how to utilise that information and then convert it into legislation or alternative steps is something that I know is being faced with considerable difficulty.

One point that was made that I think is, again, very, very important is the contacts with all the various groupings and so on that exist within the European Union, some of which we are members of, but of course those are things that we do want to maximise.

Can I just say on the response to the report from Welsh Government, a certain number of recommendations were accepted in full, but a lot of them were in principle, and I think the in-principle part of it is because so much of this is work that is in motion, and there have been so many other factors on a UK-EU level that have impacted? But this is work in progress, and on all the points that have been raised, I’m sure that there was very little disagreement in terms of that direction that we want to go in.

So, just in closing, I thank the Members who’ve taken an interest in the report and our response. The report is an important contribution. We do have to build and maintain an effective presence, an identity with the European Union, and we do have to move forward in that direction, hopefully with changes in an incoming Government. If that happens, there will be major opportunities in which to actually restore some of the status points that we raised. We’ll also have a more constructive engagement. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:07, 21 February 2024

(Translated)

I call on Huw Irranca-Davies to reply to the debate.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Can I thank everybody who has contributed to what I think has been a very, very good debate this afternoon, and for the closing remarks of the Counsel General as well? What we’ve tried to do in this report—. And by the way, we’re not alone in bringing forward reports into this area; we’ve had committees in the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament that have produced work within this field, as have, indeed, the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions, and the European Economic and Social Committee and other civil society organisations as well. This is a really hot topic, and I think we come back to the premise of our report, which is that we have a moment in time, probably in the year ahead, where we can look at the lessons that we have learnt over the last four years of, as the Counsel General described, a tsunami of information, and an overload, actually, of policy and so on that has happened, and changes, but now to reset and to say, ‘Well, how do we get the voice of Wales and of Scotland and of Northern Ireland really heard?’ And there is some element of working together as well.

I’ll just come to a couple of those points in a moment, but our report today is intended to say we’ve got an opportunity to advance this debate that we definitely need to have, and let me touch, then, in saying that, on some of these. First of all, James, my apologies in stealing some of your content in my opening remarks there, but, again, you highlighted the opportunity we have, as others did, now in the next 12 months, and the importance you stressed of engaging with EU institutions, but also, as Adam did, beyond the established EU institutions into that wider network of European bodies and organisations as well. I think there’s some creative thinking that we need to do about how we can make large the voice of Wales by thinking a bit more imaginatively. You talked as well, as did others—and there’s an important point here for the debate this afternoon—about the role of us as individual MSs, not only in just getting out to Brussels, but engaging in the myriad of networks that we have to make large the voice of Wales, and to make it heard as parliamentarians. And we shouldn’t be shy of doing that. We’re sometimes too shy and too worried about that outward engagement. This is a Parliament of the people of Wales. We need our voice to be heard internationally, including in our nearest and largest market as well. And can I just say you’re always welcome to contribute to any report or any debate that this committee does, and we appreciated your service on it as well.

Adam very importantly touched on the importance of horizon scanning, and I think the debate this afternoon has showed as well, including from Delyth as well, that the wealth of experience of insight that comes to this, including on our own committee. That is an important matter, and we did used to do that, actually. We had the horizon scanning. The Counsel General has responded by saying, 'Well, we face something of a tsunami', in his words, at the moment. Well, now is the time, actually, to look at who else within these islands is doing it well, and can we actually engage with them? And I think there is something there, Counsel General, about how we can work together with other devolved nations to see what is coming out of the EU institutions that either we can align with, or, alternatively, anticipate, and respond proactively to them. You echoed as well the calls about, 'Go to Brussels—go to Brussels.' Listen, clear as day, that comes out of our report. We've been very clear about this. The Scottish parliamentarians do it exceptionally well. They love-bomb the European Union and the institutions, and they do it for very good reason as well. So, it's a clarion call, I have to say.

Alun, I can't replicate the turn of phrase you have, but I noted a couple of them: the 'open sunshine of democratic debate', and this risk of moving from parliamentary scrutiny and so on to executive diktat. It's a great turn of phrase. [Interruption.] I'm out of time already. But transparency was—[Interruption.] Do I have time? Sorry, as I've run out of time—my apologies, James. Transparency was a key point for us, and we were told, Dirprwy Lywydd, that the new structures that have emerged currently have all the transparency of a black box: agendas are often skeletal and appear at varying times in advance. So, we do need to work on that. This is work in progress. I can't cover all the contributions, I'm afraid.

Delyth, I welcome your support for a fuller role at the PPA, a fuller role for Welsh Government on the TCA matters, echoing some of our reports from your role as committee Chair. And from Rhys ab Owen as well, the importance of civil society engaging, and Rhys as well making sure that it is resourced properly as well. And the Counsel General made that point. We need the UK Government to step up, but, if not, we need to find another way that they can properly engage. And many people spoke about a person you know well, Dirprwy Lywydd, Derek Vaughan, and talked about what the future holds in a post-Derek Vaughan EU situation. Well, we do need to think about that, and this committee has thought of it. Because it's not the individual per se, but the role, and what that does there, that networking and so on.

So, finally, Counsel General, we know this is work in progress, but we would simply say to you, let's not waste the 12 months ahead. Let's use some of the ideas that are being generated from the debate today, and from other committees and parliamentarians, and see if we can come up with the ideas that, when we come out of the EU parliamentary elections, a general election, somebody else sitting in the First Minister's seat, we are ready to make big that voice of Wales, because we've done the thinking already. Thank you to all my committee members. Thank you to an excellent committee team that we have behind us as well, and to all those witnesses again. And thank you for your patience, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:13, 21 February 2024

You just caught me on a good day. [Laughter.]

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour

(Translated)

The proposal is to note the committee's report. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

(Translated)

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.