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Publication Detail
Brexit and the Territorial Constitution: Devolution, Reregulation and Inter-governmental Relations
  • Publication Type:
  • Authors:
    Rawlings R
  • publication date:
  • Place of publication:
  • ISBN-13:
  • Commisioning body:
    Constitution Society
  • Keywords:
    Brexit. Constitution. Devolution. Reregulation. Intergovernmental Relations.
Reregulation - in the general sense of regulating again or anew - is a key part of the Brexit narrative. For business and citizenry alike, and particularly for those concerned to see the UK survive and prosper, there cannot – must not – be a major legal vacuum as the EU epoch in domestic history comes to an end in the wake of the June 2016 referendum vote. Bearing as it does on the future health, perhaps even continued existence, of the UK’s ‘state of unions’, one of the most important and challenging set of issues concerns reregulation and the territorial constitution. Common EU frameworks have had the effect of providing common UK frameworks, so promoting free and frictionless trade inside an otherwise increasingly differentiated polity. How then to substitute for EU-based regulation in order to ensure the proper functioning of the domestic market while at the same time respecting representative government systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland separately grounded through referendums in popular sovereignty? There are powerful arguments for domestic common frameworks, not least in terms of a domestic single market, compliance with international obligations, negotiation of trade agreements, protection of common resources, and rights protection. At the same time there obviously is a sea of uncertainty over the outcome of the Brexit process. The tendency to sequencing - the temptation to treat the devolutionary aspects as if they were some kind of second front best frozen while supranational negotiations proceed, rather than to take them forward in tandem in a spirit of cooperation - must be firmly resisted. EU common frameworks come in many shapes and sizes. It is futile to think in terms of a standard template for reading across. There is much in the EU by way of composite administration, in the inclusive sense of administration by co-dependent actors, network governance, and ‘soft law’ techniques of guidance, benchmarking, etc. Overlapping and mutually reinforcing, the key principles in EU administration of cooperation, coordination and communication constitute the essential ‘wiring’ of common EU frameworks, without which there would major losses of informational resources and steering capacity. Reregulation is not simply a legal endeavour. There are many policy choices associated with reregulatory frameworks. When and according to which criteria should common UK frameworks be created? What should individual frameworks comprise? How should they be delivered and policed? Who should make the inevitable judgement calls? Where indeed are the boundaries of the ‘UK single market’ concept? Whither the further possibilities of ‘GB’ arrangements in some sectors in light of the economic and political geography on the island of Ireland? In territorial constitutional terms, this all puts a premium on effective and efficient forms of multilateral intergovernmental machinery, which are sadly lacking. The domestic Brexit-driven development involves a powerful element of centralisation. While the scale and reach remains in question, especially given the practical realities of marketisation and globalisation, this clearly goes to the heart of the UK constitution in general and the territorial constitution in particular. It cannot be said too often that London stands to emerge from the Brexit process in a much more powerful position vis-a-vis the devolved nations. In view of the double-hatted character of Whitehall, the largescale functional fusion of UK Government with the government of England in a classically non-federal system, the perception that Brexit privileges England over the other constituent nations cannot be wished away. Mediating the overbearing 6 BREXIT AND THE TERRITORIAL CONSTITUTION effects of Parliamentary Sovereignty coupled with UK and England governance structures is a constitutional imperative in the context of Brexit which a ministerial mantra of significant increases in devolved decision-making power should not obscure. Underlying the current controversy over reregulation and devolution in the context of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill are basic differences between the UK Government and, in their own ways, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government in terms of constitutional perspective and understanding. An important new dynamic in the constitutional politics is coordinated and joint action between the two devolved governments, one which Whitehall would do well not to ignore. The protracted failure to re-establish power-sharing government at Stormont underscores the multiple challenges for devolution and the island of Ireland associated with Brexit. The legislative strategy elaborated in the Withdrawal Bill has five main prongs: repeal the European Communities Act 1972; stabilise the legal situation; reprogram constitutional fundamentals; empower legislative changes; and, the realm of the so-called ‘devolution clauses’ (10 and 11), occupy legislative and executive space. The devolution clauses are among the most significant provisions in the Withdrawal Bill, going as they do to the heart of contemporary political and constitutional debates about the very nature and future of the UK. According to UK Ministers they denote a transitional process, but this is not made clear on the face of the Bill. One-sided and provocative, especially when read together with the extraordinarily wide-ranging powers for UK ministers elsewhere in the Bill, the devolution clauses represent a poor choice of model to which the devolved institutions cannot be expected to give legislative consent. Negotiating and elaborating agreed laws, rules and practices for reregulatory purposes may not always be easy. But it does not do to make a constitutional mountain out of possible political and administrative molehills. Aggressive exercise of Parliamentary Sovereignty should be the last – not the first – resort. The Brexit process constitutes a thoroughgoing test of the UK’s territorial constitution. The question is sharply posed. How from the standpoint of an enlightened and prudent Union policy, one which puts a premium on effective and collaborative working of state and sub-state political institutions and on mutual respect, should UK ministers now address the subject-matter of devolution, intergovernmental relations and common frameworks? Legal, political and administrative initiatives all have a significant role to play, especially with a view to promoting trust and confidence among the several centres of legislative and executive authority. The sooner there is legislative redesign the better. Amendments to the Withdrawal Bill proposed by Scottish and Welsh ministers are par for the course: no diversion of devolved competence to London such that repatriated powers would lie where they fall; UK Ministers unable unilaterally to change the two devolution settlements; UK ministers unable unilaterally to make provision within Scottish or Welsh Ministers’ executive competence; equivalence, whereby the powers of Scottish and Welsh ministers to modify the newly categorised body of ‘retained EU law’ would truly correspond to those of UK ministers. If however it is a firm political choice in Whitehall that special provision is required, the Withdrawal Bill might contain a power to add, remove or modify reservations in the devolved settlement(s) to reflect frameworks agreed with the devolved administration(s) for the realisation of the UK single market, subject to the approval of Westminster and the relevant devolved legislature(s). The devolved institutions would have a significant measure of protection and Whitehall and Westminster should have little to fear. Parliamentary Sovereignty would be harnessed to constitutional advantage as a reserve power, available to exercise in the BREXIT AND THE TERRITORIAL CONSTITUTION 7 truly abnormal - hypothetical - case of necessity where the terms of a common framework prove impossible to agree. There is an urgent need for multilateral forms of intergovernmental relations which are fit for purpose; and the more so, the more that UK ministers seek to develop innovative market and trading strategies for a post-Brexit world. The sudden resuscitation of the Joint Ministerial Committee (European Negotiations) after months of dormancy is a start but only a start. Reform could sensibly include the establishment of a new and more highly-geared intergovernmental forum, the ‘Joint Ministerial Committee (Domestic Single Market)’. Designed in part for ongoing purposes of policy coordination and supervision, such a body would help to fill an emergent institutional gap in the UK’s territorial constitution. The very recent agreement in the Joint Ministerial Committee on joint working to establish common approaches, and on the definition of, and general underpinning principles for, common frameworks, is a significant and welcome development. There is however much further to go in terms of a constitutional/political presumption of devolution, transparency, and, at another level, practical policy tools designed to facilitate careful and constructive analytical approaches. Soft governance techniques such as concordats and agreed guidelines, and benchmarking and peer review, have an important role to play in the reregulatory architecture. The history of reservations in devolved legislation bears ample testimony to the innate capacities of individual Whitehall departments for power-hoarding through hard-edged legal expressions of institutional self-interest. The prospect at the expense of the devolved institutions of ‘reregulation creep’ via common frameworks is clear and immediate. Firm application of better regulation type disciplines of proportionality and targeting is required through a high-level and robust system of internal check at the heart of Whitehall. Such machinery has a discrete role to play in ensuring a suitably coherent, workable and rounded constitutional product from the reregulatory process, so caring for the big picture. The common sense case for reregulatory frameworks is no excuse for constitutionally insensitive approaches to policy choice, institutional design and practical delivery
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