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Focus sharpens on 'hard reality' of political resistance to sub-national UK-EU cooperation  

Progress on forming an EU-UK Inter-Parliamentary Assembly welcomed as local and regional politicians seek ways to continue cooperation after Brexit.

The prospect of assembly for members of the UK and European parliaments was on 5 October welcomed by members of the European Committee of the Regions, who called for its evolution into a forum to which regions and cities could also have access.

Those calls came at a meeting of the European Committee of the Regions - UK Contact Group, hours before the European Parliament approved the creation of an Inter-Parliamentary Assembly with the UK.

The CoR's case for representation was made by, among others, Loïg Chesnais-Girard (FR/PES), president of the Regional Council of Brittany and chairman of the CoR-UK Contact Group. He said: "While the EU-UK Inter-Parliamentary Assembly is being set up, local and regional authorities are still not on the map for negotiations and relations between the two sides of the Channel. We therefore need to establish complementary governance quickly to facilitate dialogue between UK and EU regions. The concrete problems that arise every day in each territory, such as fishing in Brittany, can only be resolved if the regions are admitted to the discussion tables that directly concern them and are listened to. The Commission has a major coordinating role to play, but it cannot and must not do without the detailed knowledge of the issues at stake, which is provided by the territories."

Richard Szostak, acting Director of Service for the EU-UK Agreement in the European Commission, and MEP Andreas Schieder (AT/S&D), a former CoR member who now serves on the UK Coordination Group of the European Parliament, recognised the lack of representation of regions, cities and devolved administrations in the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly as problematic. However, they tempered hopes, with Mr Szostak saying that the loss of sub-national connections was "one of the many tragedies created by Brexit" and that the Withdrawal Agreement envisaged no formal role for sub-national governments.

MEP Schieder said that creating the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, which should "have been established a long time ago", had involved a "very complicated process" and "the British House of Commons was a little bit delaying on this issue". However, he said that involving sub-national governments in the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly "is a very good idea… because regional cooperation is even more important, especially when we think about Northern Ireland" and that the European Parliament should study "with flexibility how we can involve in the future the CoR in a more regular way".

"We are", he said "always willing to be open for debate and take up your proposals."

What role for sub-national governments in EU-UK relations?

The meeting, which was held online and in person, took place hours after another step towards putting EU-UK relations on a more stable footing, with the approval by EU Member States for the launch of talks on Gibraltar. Joseph Garcia, Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar, told the Contact Group that he hoped the talks would result in a bespoke treaty that would result in "fluid border" – as, he said, Spanish mayors also wish – and allow people and goods to flow freely across Gibraltar's land border with Spain.

However, difficulties in developing stable and structured relations were at the fore of much of the debate. Northern Ireland, a major subject of discussion at the last meeting of the Contact Group, in July 2021, remained a touchstone. Mr Szostak said that "poor implementation of the Protocol pollutes the entirety of the relationship", referring to the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland agreed to safeguard the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and protect North-South cooperation. MEP Schieder said that the European Parliament would "remain tough but helpful to the UK, also to ease tensions that have been rising in Northern Ireland". He emphasised that "we are willing to see creative solutions, but only within the framework of the Protocol".

Professor Kalypso Nicolaïdis of the University of Oxford said, in the UK government, the "mindset is that institutions are not necessary" and that the "UK left partly to leave institutions and processes", preferring ad-hoc cooperation when necessary. Northern Ireland poses, she said, a "great challenge", adding that "the EU is part of the political landscape of Northern Ireland", in part because one in four people in Northern Ireland now hold an Irish passport.

In another discussion – on ways in which regions and cities might begin to re-forge cooperation – Professor Iain Begg of the London School of Economics and Political Science emphasised that "political resistance from the [UK] administration to re-inventing European cooperation is… a hard reality". Professor Catherine Barnard of the University of Cambridge suggested that local and regional leaders should in the next two to three years focus on cooperation on "technical solutions to a particular problem" rather than on initiatives that could be cast as part of a "grand political agenda".

Professor Begg said that the direction of UK government's agenda remained unclear, and identified "5 Ds" that could determine the prospects of cooperation: divisions and divergences within the UK's economy; demonisation of the EU; dilemmas about labour shortages; devolution within the UK's political system; and the issue of distribution, since "there has to be a fairness agenda" within UK deliberations.

The question of how to develop cooperation to compensate for connections lost because of the UK's withdrawal from the EU has been a running theme at meetings of the Contact Group since its creation in mid-2020. The European Committee of the Regions plans in April 2022 to adopt an opinion setting out recommendations on how a new relationship between sub-national governments could be developed. Michael Murphy (IE/EPP) of Tipperary Council, the head of the Irish delegation and chairman of the CoR's Commission for Economic Policy (ECON), has been designated rapporteur.

The CoR is represented by the following members or their alternates: Aleksandra Dulkiewicz (PL/EPP), mayor of Gdańsk; Pehr Granfalk (SE/EPP), mayor of Solna; Ellen Nauta-Van Moorsel (NL/EPP), mayor Hof van Twente; Michael Murphy (IE/EPP), Tipperary County Council; Maria Gomes (PT/PES), mayor of Portimão; Antje Grotheer (DE/PES), vice-president of Bremen City Parliament; Ximo Puig i Ferrer (ES/PES), president of the Valencia region;  Erik Flyvholm (DK/RE), mayor of Lemvig;  Michiel Rijsberman (NL/RE), member of Flevoland provincial council; Oldřich Vlasák (CZ/ECR), city councillor from Hradec Králové; and Karl Vanlouwe (BE/European Alliance), member of the Flemish parliament.Henrike Müller (DE), member of Bremen City Parliament, is the observer for the Green group.

UK representatives in the CoR-UK Contact Group vary from meeting to meeting.

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