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The Chair welcomed EAG members to the videoconference and the 2nd meeting to be held remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The videoconference was scheduled instead of the meeting in light of the continuing, unprecedented challenges and pressures resulting from the pandemic. The Welsh Government was continuing to take all possible steps to safeguard Wales against the spread of coronavirus – 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 also updated the group with the good news that William Powell had recovered and been discharged from hospital after his diagnosis with COVID-19. The Chair expressed the good wishes and thoughts of the group and this was seconded by members of the group. He added that the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition (CGMET) had written to him on 11 May wishing him a speedy recovery on behalf of this group.

The Chair highlighted that Members should have received a copy of the Written Question for the CGMET which was answered on 7 May. The question submitted by Andrew R.T. Davies (South Wales Central) requested that a full breakdown of the expenses paid to members of this group be made available. The Chair noted that the answer included an appropriate breakdown of costs, whilst also protecting the privacy and personal information of the group members.

The Chair also updated the group on membership, confirming that Louise O’Shea, Chief Executive Officer of Confused.com has advised that she wishes to be removed from the membership of the group. The Chair thanked her for her work on the group since July 2019.

The Counsel General and Minister for European Transition updated the group on progress on future relationship negotiations between the UK and the EU.

Key points included:

  • The UK government continues to argue that successful negotiations, and the necessary work to implement an agreement, can be concluded alongside dealing with the current national emergency. We have seen no evidence to support that position.
  • The risk is of course with the outcome as well as the process: we can little afford to compound the enormous economic shock that is the result of the pandemic with the self-inflicted harm that leaving the transition period without a deal would involve.
  • CGMET had received a letter from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster reiterating UKG’s position that there would be no extension to the transition period. Given how far the parties were from a deal which would protect Welsh interests and the prioritisation of focus on COVID-19, good governance suggests there should be an extension.
  • While we do not agree with the approach the UK government has set, we will speak up for Welsh interests. Our ability to influence will be largely determined by the approach the UK government takes to working with the devolved governments.
  • CGMET to release a Written Statement after today’s JMC (EN), which will be distributed to members after it is released.
  • Discussions around the future of the UK and the intergovernmental review would be raised by the CGMET at JMC (EN). A 4-nation approach is needed.
  • On the issue of fishing, it was felt that access to EU markets was more important than the sovereignty of waters for Welsh fishers.
  • Discussion around Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ and their importance to students and the need for an opt-in as a 3rd country.
  • The Chair raised the discussion that had occurred at European and External Affairs Senedd Committee on 20 May with an external witness who felt that because of the politics of the current situation there was a 70/30 consensus that no matter how sensible or rational the argument for a short extension, it is not likely, which will leave us in a position of either seeking to agree a deal in the short period remaining or leaving the transition period on WTO terms along with some temporary mitigating measures.
  • Concerns over the UK government’s failure to meaningfully consult unions on trade negotiations contrasts to the situation in EU countries and the US, where trade unions have had sight of documents relating to negotiations with the UK. The TUC is calling for the government to consult trade unions on the text of its negotiations with the EU, US and all other countries.
  • Concerns that the UK government’s negotiating objectives for a possible deal with the US will undermine possibilities for the UK to secure a deal with the EU that locks in high standards and protections for good jobs and public services. Worries about lower employment rights, protections for public services and personal security which throws workers out of good jobs and leads to precarious employment. EU markets remain a priority for Welsh producers.
  • It was highlighted that there would be pressure on Environmental Health Officers in relation to Export Health Certificates related to new trade arrangements which will now be compounded by the need for them to assist with COVID-19 contact tracing.
  • The NI protocol and its impact on Wales was discussed. The impact on trade routes through Wales are a concern as traffic from Ireland could go via Northern Ireland.
  • The possibility of a ‘skinny deal’ being agreed by 31 December, which could be added to .CGMET felt that was a possibility but WTO rules would remain a concern.
  • The importance of the UK internal market for Welsh businesses. Discussions are ongoing with the UK government. Questions around regulations for each of the four nations are still being worked through.
  • A good story to tell on how Welsh businesses / manufacturers have responded to COVID-19, e.g. making PPE.
  • The FM has asked CGMET to take a lead on the coordination of recovery and a new post COVID-19 normal will need to be developed, which links together the implications of both COVID-19 and EU exit.

The Counsel General and Minister for European Transition updated the Group on the work to prepare for the end of the transition period.

Key points included:

  • The uncertainty around the negotiations intensifies the pressures and risks the Welsh Government faces in preparing for the end of the transition period, in particular in relation to:
    • The Northern Ireland Protocol
    • Preparedness for a future deal (or no future deal)
    • Legislation work to prepare for the end of transition
    • Common Frameworks and the UK internal market
    • Future UK government and Welsh Government policy (for example in migration, and agriculture and the economy), and
    • Key finance issues (such as the Shared Prosperity Fund).
  • Ministers will be considering the next steps to ensure Wales is as prepared as possible for the end of transition. However, this is constrained by the current approach of the UK government in relation to joint working with the DAs. Whilst there is some sharing of information by certain UK government departments, this is not the case with the strategic centre, and our experience from no deal work in 2019 was that seeing the overall picture and the issues on which key decisions are being made by UK government ministers is essential for our preparedness work.
  • The need to discuss with the Welsh public the issues facing them at the end of transition which is compounded by the pandemic and the reasons behind asking for an extension to the timetable. CGMET felt that the approach to COVID-19 has shown that the Welsh Government is doing this and will continue to do so.
  • Concerns over the loss of the European Court of Justice and the need for a replacement body in Wales and the deregulation agenda which was prevalent in parts of the UK Brexit narrative.
  • Members welcomed the news of a new external panel which the CGMET is to Chair as it will open up dialogue around the ‘green recovery’ agenda and form part of a new economy.
  • The impact on the sheep meat exports to the EU as well as COVID-19 impact was raised.
  • It was highlighted that the Food & Drink division was doing a lot of work on Sustainable Brand Values which shows a lot of opportunities around Kantar researched trends. It was noted that the research was carried out pre COVID-19 but is being borne out against all the current issues and will be helpful in a post Brexit world too.
  • New EU delegation in London after the closure of their offices in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast so need to investigate links to this and the possibility of a Welsh delegation.
  • Continuing relations with the European Investment Bank.
  • Round table discussions and the possibility of third sector / trade union representations at these discussions.
  • The importance of engagement with social partners as referenced by the European Commission, in which context it was confirmed that the Welsh Government would be publishing a draft Social Partnership Bill to reflect its commitment to social partnership as a fundamentally important part of making decisions in Wales.

The Chair confirmed the next EAG meeting / conference call was scheduled for 9 July, but that this would be kept under review.

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