Brexit: Strategic planning for powers returning from EU

22 November 2017 - by Matthew Coyle

The Northern Ireland Assembly recently published an extensive draft index of areas and powers returning from the EU – in the event of the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc – that intersect with the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland.

The 141-point document, referenced by Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney at an SDLP Brexit breakfast in north Belfast this morning, makes for compelling reading. It demonstrates the extent to which EU and national policies are enmeshed. It also brings to mind the fears jointly expressed by Scotland and Wales that the UK Government would be executing a ‘power grab’ should it fail to reallocate former European responsibilities in line with respective devolved arrangements. Westminster may well argue, however, that the UK’s scope for negotiating international trade deals could be hampered by the existence of separate devolved interpretations, and hence the need for a collective approach.

From a range of agriculture and energy protocols to environmental rules around air and water quality, pesticides, waste packaging and flood management, as well as public procurement, embedding such policies within a post-Brexit framework constitutes no small task. It doesn't end there, of course. The single electricity market, vehicle and medical standards, and consumer rights also feature on the list. Wherever they come to rest, be it in London or Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, preparing for their arrival is essential.

A famous Washington lobbyist once opined that “Many people in politics can tell you what just happened to you… You need to change the outcomes”. Organisations should look at their key strategic planning now and establish how they wish to proceed when relevant powers are brought back within the remit of the UK, preparing to take advantage of any openings emerging from change, as well as aiming to mitigate possible threats. Might it be desirable for them to stay at the UK level, for example, or to be amended or improved before any reintroduction at Stormont? Are there fresh cross-border implications or opportunities that would impact?

As part of such planning, engagement with government and the political arena fulfils an important function. The future domestic landscape remains unformed, thus educating and informing crucial decision-makers can aid in shaping that new reality to the benefit of organisational goals and outcomes. The passage through parliament of the EU Withdrawal Bill is a process. In any process, there exist opportunities for interventions. These must be identified and acted on accordingly.

Given the north-south and east-west strands of the Good Friday Agreement, tensions might arise with respect to whether, say, Northern Ireland’s present environmental standards are be maintained (to match those in the Republic of Ireland) or lightened (should Great Britain pursue that course). It is worth pondering the role of the British-Irish Council, and how it may factor in settling the particulars of this debate.