The Chair welcomed EAG members to the conference call.
The conference call was scheduled instead of the meeting in light of the unprecedented challenges and pressures resulting from the Coronavirus outbreak. The Welsh Government was taking all possible steps to prepare Wales for coronavirus by working with the other governments in the UK and public services in Wales to plan and to try and slow down the spread of the virus.
The Chair noted Alec Don’s recent letter of resignation as group member, as Alec was moving to a new position with Abu Dhabi Ports, and put on record his thanks for Alec’s contribution to the group’s deliberations.
The Chair welcomed Jackie Jones, former Member of the European Parliament, as a new member of the EAG.
On behalf of the group the Chair also expressed his thoughts and very best wishes to William Powell, whom it had been reported in the media had been taken seriously ill with coronavirus.
The Counsel General and Minister for European Transition updated the Group on developments, with a focus on UK/EU negotiations to date.
Key points included:
- Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, the Welsh Government believed the negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship should not continue at this time, and strongly doubted these could be concluded before the end of the transition on 31 December 2020 – and therefore believed the end of the transition period should be extended
- If the negotiations continued, the UK government should share information, discuss and seek devolved governments’ agreement on key issues and choices for the UK’s future economic relationship with the EU
- Welsh Ministers had written to the UK government to outline a number of specific concerns on the impact of the approach for traded goods, for the service sector in Wales and the need for the UK government to negotiate continued participation in successor EU programmes
- Welsh Government’s intention had always been to be constructive and hoped to get agreement with the UK government, enabling the UK to enter the negotiations with the EU from a position of unity and strength
- While Welsh Ministers did not agree with the approach the UK government had set they would speak up for Welsh interests, and would continue to seek to be constructive in working with the UK government on the negotiations
- Other ongoing work related to EU exit including:
- preparedness for a future deal (or no future deal, where much of the no deal work last year remained relevant)
- legislation to ensure a functioning statute book
- common frameworks and the UK internal market
- future UK government policy (e.g. migration)
- future Welsh Government policy (e.g. in relation to agriculture and the economy), and
- key finance issues, such as the Shared Prosperity Fund.
The Chair led an exchange of views which covered:
- Support for the constructive approach being taken by the Welsh Government and the content of the letters sent by Welsh Ministers to UK government counterparts to seek to protect Welsh interests and influence the UK negotiating position.
- Consensus among members that the transition period should be extended in order to enable both the UK and EU to focus fully on the COVID-19 emergency and have adequate time to undertake negotiations once the immediate crisis abates
- A reminder that the EU operated on basis of legality and precedent
- A limited free trade agreement at the end of the transition period would significantly damage the Welsh economy and in particular specific industry sectors which were already on their knees
- The integrated nature of our supply chains in the UK and across Europe and globally
- The likely significant ongoing, as opposed to one-off, consequences of trade barriers
- The significance of aspects of the UK/EU negotiations which go broader than trade matters (e.g. participation in EU programmes)
- The importance of clear simple communication backed up with examples/case studies
- The present pandemic emergency was going to be a test of the new approach to migration and the availability of seasonal workers/crop pickers to agriculture and horticulture businesses (and would be exacerbated by the new UK government proposals on future migration policy)
- The experience of the pandemic emergency and identification of key workers in health care and social care should lead to a change in the use of language by UK government in relation to migration, in particular moving away from derogatory terms such as “low skilled workers”
- Optimism that reflection and rationality in light of the experience of the pandemic should mean that the negotiations result in a closer trading relationship with the EU as the idea of losing market access was inconceivable
- Encourage Welsh academic institutions to apply for the Horizon programme ‘fast track’ call for proposals, noting that with limited access to laboratories the focus would be on the present emergency
- The uncertainty on UK government plans for EU exit related legislation in the UK Parliament and knock-on effects to the legislative programme in the Senedd, with the Counsel General referring to the First Minister’s statement.
- Also consideration of the capacity for scrutiny of governments by legislatures during this crisis
- The importance of seeking constructive and positive intergovernmental conversations, in an attempt to ensure inclusivity in the negotiations.
In conclusion, the Chair reported that the consultation document ‘A Framework for Regional Investment in Wales’ was currently live on the Welsh Government website, closing on 22 May.
The Chair confirmed the next EAG meeting/conference call was scheduled for 21 May, but that this would be kept under review. It was agreed that in all circumstances in which it goes ahead then the ability to attend remotely using technology would be provided.