On Monday, 24 October 2016, the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, convened a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee, a body set up under the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK Government, Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Assembly on Devolution.
The Meeting was attended by the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for the UK Government and by the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland.
This blog rounds up reactions from the leaders of the devolved Governments.
The Government issued a communiqué which indicated that the Prime Minister Theresa May told the devolved administrations she would strike a bespoke Brexit deal that works for the whole of the UK.
The Prime Minister told the leaders from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that the manner in which the UK leaves the EU should not be seen as a series of binary choices. The Prime Minister also told the devolved administrations that she wanted their input in shaping the negotiations to leave the EU – and that the final agreement will make a success of Brexit for everyone in the Union.
Following the meeting, a new cross-nations forum on Brexit talks was established. The forum will be chaired by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis. It was agreed that a work programme would be established for this Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations by the time of its first meeting in November, in order to integrate it with the wider process of exiting the EU. The Prime Minister also said she wanted the JMC meetings to take place more regularly and would set up another session early next year.
Following the meeting, Prime Minister Theresa May said:
“Working together, the nations of the United Kingdom will make a success of leaving the European Union – and we will further strengthen our own unique and enduring union as we do so. The great Union between us has been the cornerstone of our prosperity in the past – and it is absolutely vital to our success in the future. The country is facing a negotiation of tremendous importance and it is imperative that the devolved administrations play their part in making it work.”
Following a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee to discuss the implications of the referendum on leaving the European Union, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon commented that the meeting was long overdue but was disappointed by the content, describing it as “hugely frustrating”. The First Minister later issued a statement in which she underlined the continued lack of information surrounding the UK Government’s approach to the EU negotiations and the significant amount of work to be done in order to ensure that there is meaningful engagement within the newly established sub-committee of the JMC.
Nicola Sturgeon stressed that the discussions demonstrated the need to pursue “alternative options”, which included proposals to protect Scotland’s place in the single market “even if the rest of the UK leaves”. She also made reference to preparing for a referendum on independence if necessary. Ms. Sturgeon’s statement highlighted the need for Scottish interests to be protected in the upcoming negotiations:
“I set out Scotland’s key interests in protecting our place in the single market, securing continued freedom of movement and ensuring social and employment rights are protected. However, despite a full and frank exchange of views around the table we know no more about the UK Government’s approach to the EU negotiations now than we did when we went into the meeting.
Four months on from the referendum we finally have agreement on a sub-committee of the JMC for the devolved administrations and the UK Government to discuss the issues raised by Brexit, but there is a significant amount of work to do to make sure that the engagement we have is meaningful.”
The full statement can be found on the Scottish Government website.
The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, expressed similar sentiments, telling reporters outside Number 10 that “nothing concrete came out of the meeting and I am none the wiser as to what her proposals are. The problem seems to be that they don’t know what to do next.” He was quoted as saying that the Prime Minister had declined a direct opportunity to reassure him that businesses would continue to trade without tariff with the rest of the European Union.
The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, issued a formal statement following the meeting of the devolved nations in which he underlined the uncertainty surrounding the UK Government’s view of what a successful Brexit would actually entail. He claimed that this uncertainty makes it difficult for devolved administrations to positively influence the process.
Carwyn Jones stated that he argued strongly for “full and unfettered access” to the single market, and that for Wales, this must be the starting point for the EU negotiations. Mr Jones also welcomed the UK Government’s decision regarding the role devolved administrations would play in developing the Brexit work programme and the need for the administrations to meet more frequently.
Reactions: Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland representatives, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, spoke after the meeting, declaring that they had emphasised to the Prime minister the need for the Northern Ireland Executive to be “fully represented” in negotiations regarding future relationships with EU countries.
“We have today emphasised to the Prime Minister in the clearest possible terms the need for the Northern Ireland Executive to be fully represented in the negotiating process regarding future relationships with EU countries.
“We also underlined our joint determination to secure the best possible outcomes for the people we represent. “Commitments have been made by Theresa May’s Ministers on the priority being attached to our unique circumstances. Those words must be translated into action with a meaningful and clearly established role in negotiations. There must be no democratic deficit when it comes to our region’s voice being heard and its interests defended.”
The Ministers reiterated the arguments made in their joint letter to the Prime Minister in August, outlining a number of agreed key priorities. These included cross-border movement of people and goods and services; trading costs and business competitiveness; uncertainty on drawdown of EU funding; and support for the agri-food sector.
Number 10 View
The reactions of the devolved governments should be set against those of the Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman, who set out the UK Government’s position, saying: “[the Government] has been clear that we should be working together to secure the best possible deal for the whole country. We expect representatives of the devolved administrations to act in that way and in no way to undermine the UK’s position.”