Brexit: The view from European local government

Andy Johnston, Director of LGiU Scotland, reports back after attending Brexit-focused meetings in mainland Europe.

I am always fascinated by the way that significant change can create new realities. After the initial shock of Brexit, I have, like many others, settled down to the challenge of trying to make it work. Two recent visits to mainland Europe serve to illustrate how colleagues in local government across Europe now exist in a different reality, one where the EU is still the future and they are struggling to make sense of the impact of Brexit upon them and their constituents.

The first meeting was at the Committee of the Regions in Brussels. It was a lunch meeting for civil servants and MEPs. I was invited with Alison Thewliss MP to discuss the impact of Brexit on Scottish Cities. Alison Thewliss is the SNP spokesperson on Cities and laid out the SNP position, noting that Scotland voted to remain and that there was a real threat to the economies of Scottish cities if the UK left the single market.

I pointed out the areas of local government competence that might be affected by Brexit such as economic development and higher education. I mentioned that, as far as I could tell, the effect of the Great Repeal Act would be to put all EU legislation into U.K. law, with the opportunity to change or remove the laws later. Unsurprisingly, I was asked which laws local government would like to see the back of. The two that sprung to mind were procurement regulations and state aid rules. The discussion of the latter exposed a gap in understanding that I think will need to be addressed if Brexit is to be smooth.

For the EU civil servants the state aid rules were a mechanism for inter-state equality and a means of promoting economic development in poorer EU countries. I explained that the reality in local government was that they were seen as complex instruments requiring a ponderous decision making process and they got in the way of some laudable social policies. This mismatch between lofty ambition and practical implementation is destined to be a constant challenge and local government will have to get better at understanding what’s behind legislation, while EU civil servants will have to pay more attention to the practical implementation of their policies.

The second meeting was of the Assembly of European Regions a collective of local and regional authorities from the EU and beyond. They held a half day discussion about the implications of Brexit, kicked off by a presentation from Cllr Roy Perry leader of Hampshire County Council. Roy reiterated well known points about the surprise result and the uncertainty caused. He also brought up the importance of culture and the effect that the UK as an island had on the decision. Cllr Perry’s point was that these cultural issues need to be addressed as they could be indicators of change within the electorate of other EU countries.

As AER is led by politicians the debates had a different flavour to Brussels. More emphasis on the idea of the EU and how it should communicate it successes better. In particular, subsidiarity should be emphasised. The point was made that some of the regions that voted for Brexit strongly, had received the most support from EU funds. Distributing money via formulae and appointed bodies actually appears to only build dependency and resentment.

The AER meeting finished with a declaration that they hope will influence the debate within the EU and it’s noteworthy that the policy priority approved for 2017 was ‘A stronger Europe’. Whether this means a more open and less bureaucratic Europe or a more controlling and forceful Europe wasn’t clear.

So, are we all living in a new reality? Too early to say but in my travels I have spoken to some who are intrigued by the UK’s decision and the minimal impact it’s had on the economy so far. In Ireland the EU is losing friends with its ruling on Apple and while in Vienna, it was Austria day, an opportunity for some flag waving and a bit of politics. At the train station was a large group of Austrian Exiters and they seemed very upbeat.

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Photo credit: Regionsandcities via this Creative Commons licence