19 December 2018
On 29 March 2017, the UK triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which outlines the legal process for leaving the EU. This started the two-year negotiation period, which ends at 11pm on 29 March 2019. So, unless Article 50 is extended—which would need a change in UK Government policy and unanimous agreement in the European Council—the UK will leave the EU in 100 days’ time. This article looks at where we are in the Brexit process, what’s happened so far and what’s to come.
Where are we now?
Following 20 months of negotiations, the UK and the EU reached a major milestone on 25 November 2018 when the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the future relationship were endorsed by EU leaders at a meeting of the European Council. Then, five days of debate were scheduled in the House of Commons, with the a vote to ratify the deal planned for 11 December.
However, the vote did not go ahead as planned. On 10 December, the Prime Minister postponed the vote, stating her belief that the deal would be rejected by a significant margin, because too many MPs object to the proposals for the ‘backstop’—the plan to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland if there is not an agreement on a future trade relationship by the end of the transition period.
This means that the debate has simply been put on hold, with no decision yet made by the House of Commons. Therefore, the UK Government does not have to make a statement on contingency plans in the event that Parliament rejects the deal, as this step has not been reached.
On 17 December, the Prime Minister announced in a statement to the House of Commons that she will bring the Brexit deal back for a vote in January. The debate on her deal will restart in the week commencing 7 January, with the vote held the following week. The Prime Minister said that she has sought fresh assurances from the EU regarding the status of the backstop, and that she hoped to secure additional political and legal assurance in the coming weeks. She ruled out the case for another referendum, saying that it would do ‘irreparable damage to the integrity of our politics’.
What’s been happening in the Assembly?
The most significant recent development in the Assembly is that Members voted to reject the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. In setting out the Government’s viewpoint in the debate on 4 December, the then Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford said that the Withdrawal Agreement fails to meet the ‘fundamental interests’ of Wales and the UK. After the debate, the Assembly approved amendment 2 to the original motion, tabled by Plaid Cymru, which provided for the rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement in stronger terms. A total of 34 AMs voted for the amended motion, with 16 voting against. The agreed motion states that the future relationship falls short of the model set out in ‘Securing Wales’s Future’, notes that Wales will be worse off economically under the current deal, and calls on the UK Government to seek UK membership of the Single Market and Customs Union.
Work continuing behind the scenes
Aside from all the headline political goings-on, in the past few months, Assembly committees have been busy looking at various aspects of Brexit.
The External Affairs Committee has been the lead committee for scrutinising Brexit work. Following the publication of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, the committee published its analysis of the documents, focusing on key areas of interest to Wales, including the economy and trade, agriculture and healthcare. The committee has also carried out work on Brexit preparedness in three areas—ports, healthcare and food—and has been continuing its work on part two of its inquiry into Wales’s future relationship with Europe, focusing on networks and relationships and how these can be sustained in the future.
The work of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee has also been an important part of the Assembly’s scrutiny of Brexit plans. It has published reports on environmental governance, common frameworks and fisheries after Brexit. Recently, the committee has been focusing on two key pieces of UK legislation that will affect Wales—the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill. To read more about the possible implications of these Bills for Wales, have a look at our blog posts on agriculture and fisheries.
Other subject committees have also been looking at the implications of Brexit for their areas, including the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee and the Children, Young People and Education Committee.
Work still to do – Brexit subordinate legislation
In the Assembly, the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs (CLA) Committee is responsible for sifting and scrutinising regulations made by Welsh Ministers under the powers in the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The Committee has agreed a protocol (PDF, 103KB) with the Welsh Government for the scrutiny of these regulations. The protocol includes a commitment to an early warning system for Statutory Instruments (SIs) that are to be introduced, and an even flow of regulations.
So far, three ‘proposed negative’ instruments have been laid, and the Welsh Government are expecting the remaining SIs to be laid between now and March. It is expected that January will be a particularly busy month for the committee due to the number of SIs that will be laid.
In a letter (PDF, 377KB) to the Chair of the EAAL committee on 1 November, the then First Minister, Carwyn Jones, outlined the Government’s plan for subordinate legislation in the coming months:
We are currently anticipating that around 55 Exit SIs will be laid in the National Assembly between November and February. The majority of the SIs will be made using EU (Withdrawal) Act powers, though a very small number may be made under other existing powers. This number is subject to change, because, as drafting is finalised, some SIs may be merged or disaggregated.
In addition to Welsh Government SIs, the committee is responsible for scrutinising UK regulations made in devolved areas. Assembly Standing Order 30C requires that, for regulations made by UK Ministers under the EU Withdrawal Act, the Welsh Government must lay a written statement notifying the Assembly of the regulations in question. Where the regulations amend primary legislation, the Welsh Government must also lay a Statutory Instrument Consent Memorandum (SICM). The Welsh Government has now laid nine SICMs and 60 written statements relating to regulations to be made by UK Ministers in devolved areas. The Welsh Government are anticipating around 150 SIs to be laid in the UK Parliament in areas devolved to Wales, but have stated that this number is subject to change.
So, what does the new year have in store?
Although not directly related to Brexit, the election of Mark Drakeford as Wales’s new First Minister is a significant development, as he will be tasked with ensuring that the Assembly’s views are taken into account during the next stage of Brexit discussions. Perhaps more significant is the fact that Jeremy Miles has been appointed to the new post of Brexit Minister in the Cabinet. His responsibilities include oversight of Brexit legislation, EU structural funds and the Shared Prosperity Fund.
It is now the Christmas recess at the Assembly, but when Members return in January they will be continuing their work of scrutinising Brexit developments. If, in January, the Brexit deal is ratified by Parliament, AMs will be keen to follow the progress of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which will be needed to implement the agreement in law and will be subject to legislative consent. To keep up to date with all the latest Brexit developments in Wales and Westminster, keep an eye on our Brexit pages on the Assembly’s website.
Article by Peter Hill, National Assembly for Wales Research Service