Francesca Dickson queries the National Assembly’s abandonment of its European and External Affairs Committee
In 2009 the Welsh Government published its first strategy for Europe, emphasising the need for increasing levels of engagement and recognising that “the European Union is integral to our policy ambitions”. Meanwhile, through its European and External Affairs Committee, the Assembly has also ‘reached out’ beyond its borders, undertaking substantive enquiries into European policy, most notably the subsidiarity protocol, structural funds and cohesion policy. The Committee has also been a forum for working closely with Welsh MEPs and members of the Committee of the Regions. According to the Committee’s 2011 Legacy Report, this approach allowed for the “early intervention” and “high visibility” required in order to exert influence on policy at the European level.
National Assembly Presiding Officer Rosemary Butler AM argues that mainstreaming European issues across the Assembly’s committees is proving productive.
It is therefore perplexing that following the May election the National Assembly has abandoned European and international affairs as a distinct policy and scrutiny area. Instead, in the Fourth Assembly they are to be “mainstreamed into the work of the Constitutional Affairs Committee and the five ‘thematic’ committees”. But is this simply a veiled diminution of the Assembly’s European and international vocation?
The new Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee’s remit in ensuring the legality of all Assembly legislation is already so extensive that it calls into question its ability to develop the required expertise on European issues. It is indicative that in Standing Order 21, which sets out the Committee’s functions, the specifically European aspects of its role, particularly subsidiarity monitoring, are given a minor weighting. Moreover, nowhere in the description of the Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committees’ functions is external affairs even mentioned.
As for how coherent the attempt to ‘mainstream’ European issues is likely to be, a comparison with Scotland raises serious doubts. There the Scottish Parliament’s European and External Relations Committee remains in being and a more robust approach to EU affairs is being developed. The Parliament is also improving its capacity for both scrutinising and engaging with European policy by formally designating EU ‘reporters’ on its subject committees to complement the work of the European and External Relations Committee. The job of the Committee is described as “horizon-scanning on behalf of the Parliament, acting as an informed and competent conduit for the subject committees”. In addition it is responsible for “developing, monitoring, reviewing and updating the Scottish Parliament’s European strategy”.
In Wales, on the other hand, this job of coordination and rallying the Assembly in its approach to Europe is not clearly assigned to anyone. Rather, it is the responsibility of all members of the five ‘thematic’ committees to ensure that they are aware of any developments in European policy that might impact on their field, and to be part of communicating Welsh policy preferences to the EU level.
Although the Assembly’s research service has launched a series of helpful ‘EU policy-updates’, the lack of a more systematic on-going review of wider trends and potential challenges in European policy by a dedicated Committee leaves open the possibility that important issues will simply pass the Assembly by.
There was a clear need to redress the Assembly’s unwieldy committee structure, but this particular change may well prove a false economy. With the Assembly’s enhanced law making powers, following the March referendum, the role of the European and External Affairs Committee was becoming more and not less important for Wales.
Not only is the Assembly adopting a divergent stance to the Welsh Government, which shows no sign of minimizing its external profile, but it is also swimming against the swelling tide of opinion in other European regional legislatures, which are seeking more engagement beyond their own territories.
In the void created by the Committee’s dissolution, who is going to be scrutinising the Welsh Government’s European and international policies? Who is ultimately responsible for the Assembly’s external engagement? The answer is ‘everyone’. The danger is that in practice that will mean no one at all.