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Contact Group highlights threats to EU-UK cross-border links  

Trade effects of Brexit likely to become clearer only after 1 October, senior EU official tells EU and UK local and regional politicians at meeting that puts spotlight on Northern Ireland and Gibraltar.

Movement across the United Kingdom's borders with Ireland and Spain were central issues discussed at a meeting of British and EU local and regional politicians that focused on connections at risk of being lost by the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

Speaking at a meeting of the European Committee of the Regions-UK Contact Group, a senior EU official said that negotiations to ease mobility across the borders of Gibraltar and Spain should start soon, while voicing criticism of the UK authorities' commitment to implementing the special agreement established for Northern Ireland. The meeting, which was held on 19 July, came two days before the UK government was due to publish ideas for adjusting the Northern Ireland protocol agreed between the UK and the EU in 2019.

The deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Joseph Garcia, said that Gibraltar would like to see a “bespoke agreement" between the UK and Spain similar to those enjoyed by Liechtenstein, Monaco, or San Marino. One option, he suggested, would to impose checks at two entry points into Gibraltar, at its seaport and its airport, but to leave the land border between Gibraltar and Spain open, to facilitate the flow of workers between Gibraltar and the Spanish region of Andalucía.

Martijn de Grave, a member of the cabinet of European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, said that he expected the European Commission to announce within days the proposed mandate for talks between the European Union and the UK about Gibraltar. He said that the mandate would then need the approval of the EU member states, which he hoped would be possible soon after the summer break. On 20 July, a day after the meeting, the Commission duly presented the draft mandate.

Mr de Grave also addressed difficulties in the bespoke agreement for the island of Ireland, rejecting British criticism that the EU of being "purist" and "legalistic". "The reality is that the European Commission with member states and the European Parliament have been working hard and creatively for actual solutions in Northern Ireland", he said, by, for instance, accommodating a UK request for an extension of the "grace period" for chilled meat to pass between Northern Ireland and Great Britain without paperwork. The EU has come up with a similar proposal for generic medicines, he said, "but at the same time as we work on these solutions, we see very little implementation of the protocol by the UK".

Turning to the impact of Brexit on local and regional authorities, Mr de Grave warned that the full effects of the UK's withdrawal from the EU's single market have yet to be seen, as the UK has not carried out checks and controls on imports from the EU. "Once they will gradually start to phase in these controls and checks as of 1 October, this will have an impact on transport leaving your ports to the UK," he said. "Authorities of the member states and the European Commission have been very engaged with the UK to make sure that they are at least ready with regards to databases, with regards to logistics, for the start of these controls and checks. But we have our doubts, so this remains a very important focus of attention this autumn."

The European Parliament standing rapporteur for trade with the UK, Seán Kelly, said while the "long-term effects" of the  the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) reached between the UK and the EU in late 2020 have yet to be seen, one lesson from the first half year of the UK's new trading relationship with the EU is clear: "Brexit means paperwork". He nonetheless struck a hopeful note, saying that "although businesses have been faced with severe difficulties and uncertainty, many are coping and discovering new potential avenues and solutions".

Further evidence of business resilience was provided by the head of the Dutch delegation to the European Committee of the Regions, Ellen Nauta-Van Moorsel (NL/EPP), mayor of Hof van Twente. She said that “at the beginning of this year we faced some uncertainties with regards to the implementation of Brexit, yet the general view in the Netherlands is that we did not face major disruptions and that the transition to the new situation went relatively well. This is due to the extensive preparations of not only national governments, but also local and regional authorities, the private sector and other stakeholders."

However, Ms Nauta-Van Moorsel expressed concern about difficulties reaching UK citizens in the Netherlands in order to persuade them to gain residence permits. She indicated that at present around 3,000 UK citizens have not yet regularized their status to reflect the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

Looking ahead, the chairman of the Contact Group, Loïg Chesnais-Girard (FR/PES), president of Brittany's regional council, said: "We should now be pleased that, from December onwards, the resources of the Brexit Adjustment Reserve set up by the European Union will make it possible to cushion some of this territorial impact. Nevertheless, this will not obviate the need to make a rapid inventory of the instruments available to European local and regional authorities for bilateral and sectoral cooperation with their British counterparts. Some instruments, such as the regulation on European Groupings of Territorial Cooperation, will probably have to be adapted to the new context and others may still be invented".

Cooperation between UK and EU regions

The only cross-border cooperation programme to survive Brexit is the Peace Programme created by the EU to support peace and reconciliation and to promote economic and social progress in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. For 2021-27, the €1 billion programme – now Peace Plus programme – has been adjusted, to incorporate elements from disbanded inter-regional funding projects to create a single cross-border programme covering Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland. The programme's chief executive, Gina McIntyre, outlined the changes. Robert Burgess, president of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), said that economic growth, infrastructure investment and climate-related challenges should be priorities.

Representatives from both the EU and the UK expressed regret about the UK decision not to participate in the student programme Erasmus, which enables students to study in another country. Mr de Grave urged EU member states considering bilateral programmes to be "very careful" not to undermine EU unity and "at the very least" to be "very transparent, to keep a coordinated approach".

Draft findings of a study commissioned by the European Committee of the Regions were presented at the meeting, focusing on areas such as cross-border inter-regional cooperation, the movement of people, and research and student programmes. Jan Hagemejer, leader of the research team from the Warsaw-based Centre for Social and Economic-Research (CASE), identified seven areas – low-carbon technologies, environment, climate change, research and innovation, tourism and mobility, and student and personal exchanges – as the areas where cooperation is most likely to be maintained, "although it might be on a much smaller scale than it was before Brexit". The president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), Alison Evison, said she expected sub-national authorities to have to rely principally on bilateral cooperation projects rather than on multilateral initiatives.

Other members of the CoR who participated were: Michael Murphy (IE/EPP), head of the Irish delegation, chairman of our ECON (economy commission), member of the CoR-UK Contact Group, Mayor of Clonmel Borough District; Pehr Granfalk (SE/EPP), member of Solna Municipal Council; Aleksandra Dulkiewicz (PL/EPP): mayor of Gdańsk; Antje Grotheer (DE/PES), Vice-President of Bremen City Parliament; Joan Calabuig Rull, Regional Secretary for the European Union and External Relations of the Government of Valencia; Maria Varges Gomes (PT/PES), mayor of Portimão;  Michael Crowe (IE/RE), member of Galway City Council; Michiel Rijsberman (NL/Renew Europe), member of the Council of the Province of Flevoland; Roberto Ciambetti (IT/ECR), President and Member of the Veneto Regional Council; Karl Vanlouwe (BE/EA), member of the Flemish Parliament; and Una Power (IE/Greens), County Councillor for Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.​

In addition to Ms Evison, representatives from the UK were: Robert Burgess (UUP), President of Northern Ireland Local Government Association; David Rees (Labour), Deputy President of the Welsh Parliament; Shabir Pandor (Labour), leader of Kirklees Council representing the Local Government Association; Chris While (Liberal Democrat), representing the Local Government Association; and Gillian Ford (Independent), representing the Local Government Association.

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