The UK Government EU Reform Agenda and Wales

12 October 2015

Article by Robin Wilkinson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

Image of European flags

Image from Flikr by Xavier Häpe. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

The UK is set to have a referendum on its membership of the EU by the end of 2017: this vote will be informed by the UK Government’s ongoing efforts to reform the operation of the EU and shape its future direction.

The National Assembly for Wales’ Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee is carrying out an inquiry into the UK’s EU reform agenda, looking at both how Wales can influence this process, and what impact it is likely to have on Wales. It kicks off this work on Monday 12 October, with a series of meetings in Brussels with officials from the European institutions, MEPs and the devolved administrations.

What reforms is the UK Government proposing?

The most recent detailed expression of the UK Government’s proposals for EU reform was provided by the Minister for Europe (David Lidlington MP) when giving evidence to the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee on 16 September 2015. Broadly speaking, these proposals are:

  • Greater Competitiveness, economic dynamism, job creation and wealth creation in the EU, including:
    • Deepening of the Single Market, in particular a focus on a single market for services,
    • Trade, in particular agreeing TTIP (EU/US trade pact),
    • Smarter, more effective and less burdensome regulation (with specific reference to small businesses).
  • Fairness between Eurozone and non-Eurozone Member States, including:
    • Ensuring the integrity of a single market at EU28 level,
    • Ensuring that EU Institutions have full regard to all Member States, not just those in the Eurozone,
    • Ensuring the integrity of decision-making across all policy areas not covered by single currency,
    • Giving the UK an opt-out from the concept of “ever closer union”, whilst recognising that others may wish to pursue greater political integration.
  • Sovereignty, including:
    • Strengthening powers for national parliaments, building on the early warning system introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon,
    • The Council being more assertive about its own role under the treaties,
    • Reforming free movement and welfare access including addressing the issue of ‘welfare tourism’.

In the same session, the Minister for Europe refused to say what the UK’s “red lines” are in the negotiations, stating:

I cannot give a running commentary on the detail of negotiation. The people who would be most delighted if I were to spell out all the detail of negotiation would be the other countries and the European institutions with whom we are negotiating.

Further background to the UK Government’s negotiating aims can be found in:

  • David Cameron’s Bloomberg Speech on 23 January 2013. The Prime Minister’s five principles for a reformed EU were: competitiveness, flexibility, repatriating powers to Member States, democratic accountability and fairness.
  • The coalition government’s Review of the Balance of Competences, completed in autumn 2014. The government described this as “an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK”. It was published in 32 volumes and included evidence from experts, other EU Member States and the EU institutions.

What is the current state-of-play of negotiations?

Since the General Election, the Prime Minister and his Ministers undertook bilateral discussions will all 27 other Member States, as well as officials in the EU institutions.

At the European Council meeting on 25-26 June David Cameron presented his plans for a referendum, and the Council agreed to return to this issue in December.

The European Council is scheduled to meet next on 15-16 October, when Donald Tusk (the European Council President) will discuss the technical analysis that has been undertaken following Cameron’s presentation of his referendum plans.

How is Wales involved in negotiations?

Fundamentally, the EU reform negotiations are a matter for the UK Government, as the government of the Member State. However, The Joint Ministerial Committee (Europe) meets quarterly (ahead of the European Council meetings) and provides a forum for the Ministers of the UK Government, the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to discuss EU business. Also, the UK Foreign Minister has offered private meetings with the First Ministers to discuss the EU reform negotiations.

The Scottish Parliament is currently undertaking an inquiry into EU reform and the referendum, and their implications for Scotland. As part of this inquiry it invited the UK Government Minister for Europe to provide evidence: he refused the invitation twice, stating that “there are plenty of other opportunities for representatives of the Devolved Administrations to engage on this matter”.

What impact would these reforms have on Wales?

The lack of detail at this stage makes it difficult to provide a technical analysis of the implications of the UK’s reform agenda on the Assembly’s competences. Many of these areas – e.g. welfare access and trade deals – are clearly outside of the Assembly’s competence: however, the Assembly still takes an interest in these areas and their impact on Wales. For example, TTIP has been discussed in Plenary and the Assembly’s Enterprise and Business Committee: although the Assembly has no competence over trade deals, Members are concerned about the significant impact TTIP could have on Welsh businesses and public services.

One particular issue of interest to the Assembly is the discussion over strengthening the powers of national parliaments, and where sub-national parliaments, such as the Assembly, fit into this. The Assembly’s Constitution and Legislative Affairs Committee investigated this issue during its Inquiry into Wales’ role in the EU decisions making process in 2014.

Of course, the outcome of the reform agenda could influence the upcoming EU referendum. The UK Government’s EU Referendum Bill is currently going through the House of Lords, where it will undergo a second reading on 13 October. A general expectation is that the Bill will pass in time for the Act to receive Royal Assent in December or (considered more likely) in January 2016. The House of Commons library has produced a research paper looking at the possible impact of leaving the EU, including a section looking specifically at Wales, contributed by the Assembly’s research service.

On Wednesday 14 October, Minister for Finance and Government Business Jane Hutt AM will speak at the Welsh launch event of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, hosted at Cardiff University. The first of a series of events, this will be an opportunity for interested parties to discuss Wales’ place in the EU in the context of the UK reform programme and the impending referendum.

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