Another Week Of Chaos
They say a week is a long time in politics but this week must have felt like an eternity for Prime Minister May.
No sooner had she got through the hurdle of Cabinet acceptance of her White Paper than she was faced with significant resignations from her Cabinet and from the Department leading on Brexit (DExEU). If that was not enough the deep divisions within both the Government and the Tory Party were exposed with the knife edge votes on the Trade Bill and the prospect of an early recess to stop any chance of a leadership challenge. And top of that, Bloomberg reminds us that there is still quite a lot to be settled before Brexit.
No one comes out of this well - and parliament as an institution looks frail and at times inept. It is hard to see exactly where this will all end. Meanwhile, slightly off the radar this week was the bombshell that 70 "technical notices" for businesses and households will be published in August and September setting out how we can all prepare for a no-deal Brexit (should that be what happens). And the quiet realisation that one of the Jacob-Rees Mogg amendments on the Trade Bill may well destroy the backstop clause for Northern Ireland, which is seen as the guarantee there’ll be no hard border with the Republic.
As newly appointed Brexit minister Dominic Rabb prepares for his first meeting with Michel Barnier, the European Commission will publish a paper urging its member states to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. The paper, seen by the BBC, warns of disruption to airlines, burdensome customs checks at the border, new restrictions on data transfers, and the City of London losing its financial passporting rights.
Government White Paper: Lots of commitments- little detail
For the moment it is still last week's White Paper (on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union) that the UK will be using for the basis of negotiations (A White Paper is a policy document produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation or policy. This is not legislation and not a plan set in stone but rather a set of objectives). In what May promised was going to be a principled Brexit this White Paper promises to protect jobs, protect the peace process and avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland and safeguard the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK. And interestingly it will be discussed by the EU tomorrow - so hold your breath!
Below is our brief take on the Government’s White Paper, which we have analysed against the backdrop of the principles and concerns we set out in our own Brexit White Paper published on 05 July.
Limiting damage to parts of the UK
As the Alliance explained in our White Paper, there are significant concerns among civil society about the status of EU Funding post-Brexit. There will likely be problems for areas currently receiving funding through the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund. There are also concerns about the lack of plans to replace the Rights, Equality and Citizenships programme which supports projects combating violence against women and children, hate crime, discrimination and exploitation at work. Civil society organisations desperately need to be able to plan ahead and on that basis, we asked for further details and reassurance in our White Paper.
The Government has previously stated that they plan to replace EU Funding by setting up the ‘Shared Prosperity Fund’ and that commitment is reflected in the White Paper- which sets out that the Government will to use “the Shared Prosperity Fund to spark a new wave of regeneration in the UK’s towns and citizens, and keeping citizens safe” (p.6). The Government White Paper fails to provide any level of detail on the Shared Prosperity Fund and how it will address the needs of local communities that rely on EU funding. It is not clear whether it will replace all of current EU funding or only specific programmes, what the practical details are nor are there any details what requirements will need to be met to receive funding (although they have previously said that funding most “meet local needs” and prove “its value for money”).
Maintaining principles, rights and standards
A lot of commitments, a lack of details is the overall take away on what the Government envisages for maintaining rights and standards in the future relationship. For instance, the Government commits to a “non-regression of environmental standards” (p.40) but leave room for ambiguity how these standards will be enforced. The Government has committed to continuedparticipation of the European Chemicals Agency- the EU agency that oversees and enforce the implementation of EU’s chemicals legislation. However, as Alliance member CHEM Trust has pointed out, the Government’s proposal does not go far enough by not committing to follow and implement other chemical related laws.
It is welcoming that the Government commits to membership of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) as well as “high levels of social and employment protections through a non-regression requirement for domestic labour standards and committing to high levels of consumer protection”.Given the Government’s approach to protection of rights, standards and principles during the EU Withdrawal Act’s passage in Parliament, one could be forgiven for still having concerns until these commitments are legislated for and when there is more clarity on how our rights will be enforced.
The future relationship between the UK and EU should have an overarching institutional framework and consist of a number of separate agreements with a Governing Body for political direction and Joint Committee to underpin technical and administrative functions. However there is fudge around how the devolved nations will be represented- the White Paper states that “the interests of the devolved administrations are taken into account”. More telling is in point 4.3.4. (p. 89) where the paper concedes that when it comes to the common rule book “the UK would not have a vote on relevant rule changes, its experts should be consulted on the same basis as Member States”. There is nothing to presume that consultation gives the UK a say and indeed has led many commentators to say it is precisely this that leads to the worst of both worlds - under rules of the EU but with no place at the table.
As for ‘accountability at home’ (p. 96) there is some attempt to reassure that both parliament and the devolved nations will have full accountability when it comes to the common rule book. First by ensuring that both Houses have the mechanisms to properly scrutinise proposed changes to the Common Rulebook and secondly by giving a “role” for the devolved administrations and legislatures in shaping the UK’s position ahead of discussions in the Joint Committee. The reality is though that during the passage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill the government fudged the scrutiny amendments and the Scottish government refusing to consent to any Brexit legislation. There are also questions arising on what happens with the Irish Border, if Parliament wishes to diverge from the common rulebook. So rather than instilling confidence, this begs more questions as to how the government will deliver on these commitments in practice.
There are areas in the White Paper we have not covered, see below for some recommended reading:
Concerns, thoughts & opportunities for the North-East post-Brexit
Last Thursday, the Alliance headed up to Newcastle together with Unlock Democracy and the Equality and Diversity Forum where we hosted a roundtable on Brexit & Civil Society in the North East in partnership with the Voluntary Organisations Network North East. There is a distinct sense among civil society and other stakeholders that Brexit is something that is happening “over there” (i.e. London)- the concerns of the North East are not taken into account. The North East is likely to experience significant impacts as a result of Brexit given its disproportionately large trading relationship with the EU in manufacturing. With talks of a no deal scenario looming on the horizon- it is chilling to hear that over 140,000 North East jobs are dependent on EU trade alone. There are also pressing concerns and a need for clarity on EU funding post-Brexit among civil society groups in the North East. But there are also opportunities that lie ahead, the Shared Prosperity Fund offers more opportunities to consider how funding for community services, projects and organisations can be improved in terms of the application process and accounting better for local needs. The Locality Future Places report offers a range of suggestions on how community organisations can thrive post-Brexit.
Devolution roundtable & Alliance Summer Reception
This week, the Alliance hosted a devolution roundtable and discussed how civil society in the nations and regions can best prepare for the coming weeks and months. From the many and vexed questions around the border in Northern Ireland and the potential strains placed on the Good Friday Agreement to the refusal of the Scottish Parliament to grant consent to EU Withdrawal Act, it is evident that there are significant constitutional rifts in the UK. The Alliance will continue to work with our members in the nations and regions to make sure that the voice of civil society across the UK are heard.
Thanks to everyone who came to our Summer Reception this week- great to see so many of you there and to celebrate all the hard work we’ve been doing in the last year!