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Concern at lack of structured regional dimension in EU-UK deal  

Local and regional leaders express relief at agreement, but identify major losses, uncertainties and challenges for regions and cities.

Local and regional politicians from the European Union voiced short-term relief mixed with long-term caution and concern at their first meeting with UK counterparts since the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was settled on 24 December. Politicians from both the EU and the United Kingdom emphasised a wish to develop new ties in the wake of an agreement that ended most region-to-region programmes and envisages no role for regions in overseeing and developing the deal.

At a meeting of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR)-UK Contact Group on 11 January, politicians on both sides – including Danuta Hübner (PL/EPP, a member of the European Parliament's Brexit Steering Group – cited stockpiling, COVID and business uncertainty as reasons not to jump to early conclusions on the basis of 11 days of subdued but relatively calm days of trade since the UK left the EU's single market. Longer-term concerns raised by EU politicians included data protection, the impact on fishing communities in the EU, and a lowering of environmental standards in the UK.

Loïg Chesnais-Girard (FR/PES), president of the region of Brittany and chairman of the CoR-UK Contact Group, said: "At least and at last we have an agreement and for now there has been no disaster – that is what I am hearing from my colleagues in the Contact Group and from ports, businesses and communities in my region, Brittany. But these are early days of a new relationship and the current situation still endangers old and very close ties between local and regional authorities on both sides of the Channel and the Irish Sea; so we should expect many practical and political problems to emerge."

He continued: "Politically, I fear that five-yearly reviews will ensure an environment of uncertainty for both sides. I am also very concerned that the agreement on the table does not yet provide safeguards or prospects for effective cooperation between the regions of the EU and the UK. This Contact Group must work to ensure new, deep and effective ties develop. I will seek reassurances from Mr Barnier – the EU's Chief Negotiatior – and the European Parliament that the ongoing talks will develop the regional dimension of this very important relationship."

Antje Grotheer (DE/PES), vice-president of Bremen City Parliament, expressed concern that "there is nothing in [the agreement] in relation to the territorial dimension of the future relationship," and stressed the need to remedy a situation in which the CoR is "the only existing EU-UK cooperation body at territorial level without having a formal recognition within any of those papers". Options could include, she said, association with the new Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, or with the civil-society platform, or the creation of a specific body for local and regional authorities.

MEP Hübner (PL/EPP), a former European Commissioner for regional development, described the Trade and Cooperation Agreement as a "skeleton" or "scaffolding" and urged local and regional governments to help local businesses understand the range of impediments to trade – such as licences, permits, health certificates, and value-added tax forms – brought in by the deal. Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield (FR/Green), a member of the European Parliament-UK Coordination Group, said that "data adequacy" – data-sharing and protection of personal data – would be a particular point of concern for the European Parliament during a period of scrutiny that may last until April.

The agreement requires the approval of the European Parliament.

Local and regional politicians raised a number of concerns that could yet emerge as difficulties when the deal is assessed by the European Parliament. Michiel Rijsberman (NL/Renew Europe) of Flevoland provincial council lamented EU concessions on fisheries, which would restrict Dutch fishermen's access to British waters and would exacerbate what he described as a pre-existing inequity in quotas in favour of British fishermen. Una Power (IE/Greens) of Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council warned that the UK government's recent decision to authorise a pesticide banned in the EU could have "an impact on the soil and watercourses on the other side of the border".

Fabian Zuleeg, director of the European Policy Centre, said that there were areas where more negotiations would be needed, other areas "where there is very little [legal] certainty" and "some areas where more clarity will have to be created". He expressed optimism on a key element of trade, saying that "on setting standards, I think there are areas where we can continue to work together" with the UK. However, he expressed pessimism about programmes such as Erasmus – the student exchange programme – because, in the UK there is at present no political will in my view to enter into such cooperation, and "in some ways there is even an attempt to prevent local authorities, regional authorities, from taking part". He also questioned the chances of the UK being willing to pay enough to make participation in the EU's Horizon scientific programme "a sensible proposition for both sides".

Erasmus and scientific cooperation were – along with recognition of professional qualifications – among the major losses for EU and UK citizens identified in the deal by both EU and UK regional and municipal leaders.

Another loss discussed at the meeting was the UK's withdrawal from a range of Interreg regional-cooperation programmes, with the notable exception of the Ireland-United Kingdom (PEACE) programme. The PEACE programme was created to support the Good Friday Agreement, which, in 1998, ended nearly three decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Kieran McCarthy (IE/EA), member of Cork City Council, said that regions in the UK and neighbouring countries had done "remarkable work and had provided the foundations" of Interreg. With the UK's withdrawal, some programmes will now end. "We can look at the half-empty bottle," he said, "but there is still a half-full bottle". He recommended that the EU create a macro-regional strategy for the North Sea that UK regions would be invited to join and that UK politicians push for the preservation of legislation enabling the creation of European groupings for territorial cooperation (EGTC) involving UK regions.

Other CoR members of the Contact Group are: Ellen Nauta-Van Moorsel (NL/EPP), head of the Dutch delegation and mayor Hof van Twente; Michael Murphy (IE/EPP), head of the CoR's Irish delegation and member of Tipperary County Council; Ximo Puig i Ferrer (ES/PES), president of the Valencia region; Aleksandra Dulkiewicz (PL/EPP), mayor of Gdańsk; Erik Flyvholm (DK/Renew Europe), mayor of Lemvig; Pehr Granfalk (SE/EPP), mayor of Solna; Maria Gomes (PT/PES), mayor of Portimão; Karl Vanlouwe (BE/European Alliance), member of the Flemish parliament; and Oldřich Vlasák (CZ/ECR), city councillor from Hradec Králové.

The CoR launched the CoR-UK Contact Group in September 2020, and held its first meeting with UK representatives in November 2020.

The CoR members of the CoR-UK Contact Group have a fixed mandate, while the UK representatives of local authorities, devolved parliaments and assemblies will vary from meeting to meeting according to the topics being discussed.

At the meeting on 11 January 2021, the representatives came from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar​. The Local Government Association, which represents English authorities, sent the chairman of its EU Exit Taskforce, Councillor Kevin Bentley, and Gillian Ford. Both are former members of the CoR. A Welsh perspective was provided by Mick Antoniw of the Welsh Assembly and previously a member of the CoR, while Steven Heddle, of Orkney Islands Council, represented the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA). Robert Burgess spoke for the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), while the Gibraltar Parliament was represented by Joseph Garcia, Deputy Chief Minister of the Government of Gibraltar.