Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme

Brexit will have significant political and institutional implications for the external affairs of the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Nicola Sturgeon hosts the 26th annual British-Irish Council summit. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.Nicola Sturgeon hosts the 26th annual British-Irish Council summit. Photo: Getty Images.

Summary

  • Brexit will have significant political and institutional implications for the external affairs of the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is a consequence of the devolution of power that has taken place within the UK since it joined the EU.
  • The division between domestic and foreign policy has become increasingly blurred, for both the UK and the devolved administrations. Policy areas with both domestic and external elements include agriculture, fisheries, the environment and trade.
  • While foreign policy remains reserved for the UK government, some policy areas with external dimensions have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These include agriculture, fisheries and the environment.
  • Under current legislative arrangements, after the UK leaves the EU some of these powers are expected to return directly to the devolved administrations, which will then have more autonomy in these policy areas.
  • The institutional arrangement for decision-making between the UK and devolved governments – the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) – is not suited to developing a joint position on leaving the EU.
  • The devolved governments do not feel that they are being included as partners around the decision-making table, due to the weak agenda-setting powers, frequency and duration of the JMC meetings.
  • The devolved administrations have different priorities for the Brexit negotiations, and have different resources available to address these concerns. Therefore, creating a forum for developing a joint position between the devolved administrations and the UK government will be of critical importance for a successful Brexit settlement.
  • To varying degrees, the devolved administrations are seeking to develop an international profile distinct from that of the UK.
  • Scotland has developed a para-diplomatic presence in Brussels and European capitals. Since the EU referendum, it has built on its pre-existing strategy to represent its interests and preferences to actors outside of the UK on matters such as the single market, free movement of people and fisheries.
  • Wales has an established presence in Brussels. Since the referendum, it has made institutional changes within its government and National Assembly for such para-diplomatic activity, including the creation of an External Affairs Committee.
  • Northern Ireland has two major obstacles to direct interaction with the EU. It has limited resources to approach the major task of creating a para-diplomatic presence, and the divided nature of its consociational government poses particular challenges to developing a coherent external image.
  • Alongside invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union, the UK government should undertake a review of which EU competences are to be returned to the devolved administrations under current constitutional arrangements.
  • The JMC mechanism for inter-governmental decision-making should be revised for the challenge of negotiating Brexit as well as for representing UK-wide interests afterwards. The revised forum should have an agreed timetable of meetings, enough time to address complex issues, and opportunities for ‘parity of esteem’ between the UK government and devolved administrations.
  • The devolved administrations should further develop their positions and infrastructure for representing their interests directly to the EU and member states after Brexit.