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This article was last updated on 22 May 2020
The coronavirus pandemic disrupted negotiations between the UK and EU this spring. Both are still preparing for the end of the transition period on 31 December. However, there are significant differences in their approaches to the future relationship, as well as disagreements on specific areas. Meanwhile, the EU has taken steps to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. During the transition period, many of these measures apply to the UK as well.
How are the future relationship negotiations progressing?
The UK and EU have now held three rounds of talks to negotiate their future relationship. In statements on 15 May, both sides agreed that little progress had been made and identified fisheries and level playing field rules as key areas of disagreement.
UK chief negotiator David Frost called for ‘a standard Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, with other key agreements on issues like law enforcement, civil nuclear, and aviation alongside’. The UK published draft texts for agreements with the EU on 19 May.
For his part, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier stressed the importance of developing a ‘single governance framework’ for the future relationship. The EU published a single draft legal text for the future relationship in March.
The UK and EU started negotiations for their future relationship on 3 March. They initially planned five negotiating rounds of a few days each between the beginning of March and mid-May.
The second and third rounds of negotiations did not take place as planned due to the coronavirus pandemic. On 15 April, UK and EU chief negotiators David Frost and Michel Barnier agreed instead to hold three week-long negotiating rounds via videoconference, starting on 20 April, 11 May and 1 June, and to take stock at the planned progress meeting in June.
The UK Government has said it will not seek an extension to the transition period as a result of the virus, even if the EU asks for one. If the UK does not reach agreement with the EU or agree an extension, it will leave the transition period on the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement alone.
Under the Withdrawal Agreement, the transition period is scheduled until 31 December 2020 but can be extended once for up to either one or two years. If an extension is sought, the UK must notify the EU by 1 July 2020. However, the UK Government has legislated to prevent Ministers from agreeing to an extension in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. Our Brexit timeline sets out the key dates between now and the end of December.
The First Minister has written to the Prime Minister to ask him to seek an extension in light of the pandemic. On 7 May, the Minister for European Transition, Jeremy Miles, said that ‘despite the promises of improved engagement as the future relationship negotiations got underway, Ministerial engagement became even more inadequate’. He said that a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) – the forum that brings together the four governments of the UK to discuss the negotiations – was planned for the middle of May, the first since January.
The UK Government also aims to negotiate new trade agreements with other countries, at the same time as negotiating the future relationship with the EU. The first round of negotiations for a UK-US free trade agreement took place between 5 and 15 May, after being delayed since March. The UK Government issued a statement on the outcome of the first negotiating round on 18 May, and confirmed that the next round would take place between 15 and 22 June.
On 13 May, the UK Government published its negotiating objectives for a free trade agreement with Japan; negotiations are expected to begin shortly. Negotiating objectives for free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand will also soon be published.
How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting preparations for the end of the transition period?
As well as negotiating their future relationship, the UK and EU also need to implement the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK-EU Joint Committee on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement met via teleconference for the first time on 30 March. The UK Government and European Commission each published statements after the meeting.
On 15 April, chief negotiators David Frost and Michel Barnier agreed that the ‘proper and timely’ implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement was a ‘key priority for both sides’. The Specialised Committee on the implementation of the Ireland and Northern Ireland Protocol met for the first time on 30 April. The UK and EU have both published documents on the implementation of the Protocol.
At domestic level, the UK and devolved Governments have been preparing for the transition period to end on 31 December. For example, changes to the immigration system, a new Shared Prosperity Fund to replace EU regional funding, and common UK policy frameworks for areas covered by EU law are planned. The Minister for European Transition outlined the impact of the pandemic on preparedness in Wales in his statement on 7 May.
One key issue for the Senedd is scrutinising legislation arising from EU exit. The UK and Welsh Governments are aiming to pass new laws to enable UK and devolved authorities to replace EU law in future . In several cases, the Welsh Government has agreed to the UK Government introducing legislation in devolved areas to do this. As these Bills affect devolved powers, the Senedd needs to consider whether to grant consent to them under the legislative consent convention. The Welsh Government has laid Legislative Consent Memorandums on the Agriculture, Fisheries, Environment and Trade Bills.
How will EU measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic affect the UK during the transition period?
Healthcare is the responsibility of Member States in the EU. However, the EU is still taking a range of different steps to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, most EU rules apply to the UK during the transition period, but the UK is not formally represented in the EU’s institutions. UK representatives can participate in EU discussions where those discussions concern the UK and they have been invited to do so, but they do not have voting rights.
During the transition period, different kinds of EU action to tackle the pandemic apply to the UK in different ways. What will happen after the transition period is subject to the ongoing future relationship negotiations.
- EU pharmaceutical law continues to apply to the UK. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is the EU agency responsible for the evaluation, supervision and approval of medicines and vaccinations. It also supports scientific research and innovation in the pharmaceutical sector. The EMA does this for the UK too during the transition period. The UK is also able to share information on the pandemic through the EU’s Early Warning and Response System and is still a member of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
- The UK can access shared medical supplies, including through the Civil Protection Mechanism and participation in joint procurement. The UK is set to receive a share of 1.5m medical masks purchased by the Commission for 17 Member States and the UK in May. However, like an EU Member State, the UK can decide whether to take part in EU procurement initiatives or not. 25 Member States participated in the European Commission’s joint effort to procure personal protective equipment and ventilators in March; the UK – along with Finland and Poland – did not.
- EU financial and economic measures still apply to the UK. This includesthe Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative – making €37bn in structural funds available for the crisis response – and other measures such as support for the agri-food sector. It does not include the eurozone response plan or the EU’s relaxation of its fiscal rules, because the UK is not a member of the euro.
- UK measures to help business still come under the EU’s state aid framework. The EU has approved UK schemes through its emergency temporary framework for state aid, including help for self-employed people and SMEs.
- UK citizens and goods are treated as part of the EU for the purpose of restrictions on movement into and out of the EU. EU Member States (except Ireland) and Schengen-associated countries have agreed to restrict non-essential movement of third-country nationals into the EU until 15 June. UK citizens will be treated as EU citizens for the purpose of these travel restrictions. The UK has not brought in equivalent restrictions for non-EU citizens. Temporary EU rules also require businesses in the EU and UK to have a licence to export personal protective equipment (PPE) outside the EU or UK.
- In a few areas, the UK is no longer eligible for EU initiatives during the transition period. For example, UK businesses are no longer eligible for help from the European Investment Bank under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.
In the Political Declaration, the UK and EU committed to reaching agreement on fisheries and financial services by the beginning of July and concluding negotiations on a future relationship in time for any agreement to be ratified by the UK and EU by 31 December 2020.
Article by Lucy Valsamidis, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament
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