Charting a course for Welsh international relations

Dr Elin Royles offers key considerations for the forthcoming Welsh Government international strategy

‘International Relations and the Welsh Language’ is a new portfolio in Mark Drakeford’s cabinet. As the minister leading on this brief, Eluned Morgan’s task is to formulate a more strategic international relations strategy for the post-Brexit world. The stakes are high, but so too is the ambition and political will. Resources and capacity are a key challenge, alongside ensuring a stronger intergovernmental basis for Welsh external projection post-Brexit.


What are the key considerations for the revised international strategy? Judging by past experience, trade will be at its centre, but it’s important that a range of areas are encompassed in the new strategy. Let’s flag up the areas that make us distinctive and the sectors where we lead and innovate: sustainable development, the Well-being of Future Generations Act, and regional and minority languages. Let’s also consider where international work seeks to foster mutual benefit and learning, such as Wales for Africa and energy. In addition, our culture and arts deserve to be recognised as areas in which to excel globally, as they can showcase the diversity and complexities of Welshness and support functional objectives such trade and investment.


Inevitably, targets, outputs and outcomes are important for any post-Brexit international relations strategy, but one size doesn’t fit all and there needs to be some flexibility. While greater use of targets and indicators complements areas like trade and investment, initiatives such as involvement in networks require different yardsticks for evaluation. Quantitative measures will not capture their less tangible benefits adequately.


Finally, there are issues of coordination and strengthening alignment. The new international relations strategy needs to support efforts to improve coordination between Welsh Government departments and key stakeholders in how Wales’ projects itself internationally, giving a clear sense of the Welsh Government’s aims and objectives, and a basis for others to hold the government to account. In addition, the strategy needs to act as an overarching framework for the host of other organisations involved in Wales’ external projection. If it manages to fulfil both roles, it can strengthen links between activities and across organisations to maximise effort and, inevitably, funding.


Beyond this need for a coordinated approach, ensuring that robust arrangements are in place to realise the strategy should be a priority.


International relations, including relations with the EU, are firmly non-devolved. The Welsh Government has pursued a relatively ambitious international agenda based on a basket of legal powers that often provided a tenuous basis for its activities. To date, the two-pronged approach to Welsh international relations has been to combine distinctively autonomous activities in Europe and internationally with working within UK-wide external initiatives that complement Welsh interests. Consequently, external relations have been strongly contingent on the UK Government’s willingness to recognise sub-state international interests in devolved areas. Dependence on intergovernmental relations (IGR) between both levels of government has been high.


The limitations of IGR within the UK are well recorded. The UK Government’s announcement of an IGR review last year was welcomed, especially as ‘Engagement on international matters, including the UK’s future relationship with the EU’ is a key theme and workstream. However, progress seems extremely slow. Indeed, IGR risk being an afterthought once again in post-Brexit preparations. Even though the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been among the Whitehall departments most accommodating of devolution, vulnerabilities are clear. Are non-legally binding intergovernmental arrangements underpinned by Memoranda of Understanding and concordats sufficient post-Brexit?


The Welsh Government should look to ensure the continuity of the positives for Welsh external relations and address some of the key problems to provide a firmer basis for Welsh projection post-Brexit. In terms of the EU, Wales has benefited from full accreditation for its officials in Brussels. Studies of EU regional representation highlight that this status has only been granted to sub-state governments by the Belgian and UK governments. These arrangements have ensured good relations, high levels of trust and inclusive working between the UK’s EU permanent representation and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland staff. Consequently, in any ‘third country’ status arrangement for the UK’s formal diplomatic relations with the EU and its institutions, this level of status for the devolved administrations should continue.


Thinking internationally, the review should consider the status of the devolved administrations in relation to UK bodies, including agencies and arms-length organisations that have a remit to represent and work for the whole of the UK, such as the British Council, Visit Britain and the UK Department of International Trade (previously UKTI). Whilst there are examples of good working relationships, there are limitations to Wales’ ability to influence the strategic direction and priorities of internationally-facing UK bodies. Reforms are needed to ensure that the Welsh Government and other devolved administrations have formal influence and that policies are developed collectively to reflect the UK as a whole. Generally, the UK Government values adaptability. However, a more robust basis for intergovernmental relations is required. If we really want to see meaningful joint working and expect UK departments and agencies to deliver on specific Welsh expectations, future arrangements need to be put on a statutory footing.  


Welsh input into the UK IGR review should also give serious consideration to aligning as closely as possible to the Scottish Government’s position. This approach worked to Wales’ advantage back in 1998-1999 when devolution was introduced. Ensuring the same arrangements for all parts of the UK should facilitate the UK Government taking devolution into account.


It’s also worth remembering that the basis for Welsh international relations post-Brexit predates the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales. The foundation stones were laid during the Welsh Office era, with a vast amount of activity under the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s. These policies have evolved and expanded following political devolution in 1999, all against the backdrop of the UK’s membership of the EU.


The EU context is viewed by many as central to the international agency of many sub-state governments in Europe. The challenge for Eluned Morgan and her team will be to develop a strategic approach without that driving force and plot a course for Welsh international relations through the uncharted territory of a post-Brexit landscape.


Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

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Dr Elin Royles is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of International Politics and the Centre for Welsh Politics and Society - WISERD - at Aberystwyth University and has been researching Welsh international relations since 2007.

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