Heading for the Brexit door

Last week was a momentous one as the UK triggered Article 50, published a Great Repeal Bill White Paper, and the EU responded with an outline of negotiating priorities. What does this mean for the sector, and what should it be doing to respond? Trigger happy?

The UK triggered the once-obscure Article 50 clause in the same week that the rest of the EU celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundations for ‘an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe’. While the mood in Brussels was funereal, the public feeling in the UK is more divided than ever. According to Britain Thinks, there now appear to be four prevailing outlooks on Brexit: the die-hards, cautious optimists, accepting pragmatists, and devastated pessimists. We need as many people as possible in the middle two categories, and that goes for decision makers, as well as those seeking to influence decision makers.

Time is of the essence

The future is uncertain, and the scale of change will be dictated by the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations. A close trading relationship (that is looking more likely than it was) might result in relatively few dramatic changes, whereas no trade deal threatens to wreak havoc on the UK’s trade and regulatory landscape, with almost  no sector left unscathed. The clock is ticking for organisations to get to grips with how different Brexit scenarios might affect them, and for them to affect Brexit. To help our members prepare, we will be developing a ‘Brexit Planner’, so they ask themselves the right questions and can respond accordingly.

Notwithstanding a possible extension to flesh out the details and a likely implementation phase, organisations should work to the assumption that most key decisions will be made before ‘Brexit day’ on 30 March 2019. Moreover, due to events such as the French and German elections, most of the substantive negotiations will take place in a small window of opportunity between autumn 2017 and autumn 2018. This is also the window of opportunity for the voluntary sector to be influencing those negotiations.

Extinguishing regulatory bonfires

Many of our most important laws are currently derived from the EU, from employment rights to the protection of rare wildlife.  These laws, often hard won by our members, are under attack by those who are ideologically opposed to regulation. They claim that regulation is a block on economic growth, and see Brexit as an opportunity to weaken or remove huge swathes of it. Not only does this fail to recognise the social and environmental benefits of regulation – from clean beaches to employment rights – it misunderstands the economic impacts of regulation. Taking environmental regulation as just one example, research from the London School of Economics shows that it makes only a small difference to productivity, only marginally affects international competitiveness, and crucially – the benefits vastly outweigh any costs.

It’s the government’s intention to transfer as much EU law into UK law as possible following Brexit, and this should be welcomed. Given the huge volume of EU law that will need to be converted, ministers will need to make technical changes (eg removing references to the EU) during this process, using ‘delegated powers’ that allow them to make changes without full parliamentary oversight. However, it’s crucial that the ‘great repeal bill’ (its actual name is likely to be more prosaic) does not allow the government to make material changes to legislation without parliamentary oversight.  So we welcome the government’s commitments in the great repeal bill white paper that ministers will only use delegated powers to make technical changes. But what constitutes ‘technical’ is open to interpretation and civil society will need to be hyper-vigilant to ensure that material changes are not made via delegated powers. Indeed, some organisations are already making lists of the technical amendments that would be necessary to convert EU law into UK law, so they can react quickly to any unnecessary changes that overstep the mark.

Irrespective of which, the government would be wise not to attempt to weaken regulation in the first place. There appears to be little public appetite for a regulatory bonfire, and a recent survey of Conservative supporters found that the vast majority wanted to strengthen or maintain environmental regulations after Brexit. More importantly, the draft EU negotiating guidelines are clear that the EU will not sign a trade deal with the UK if it ‘dumps’ stringent regulations in favour of lax ones. The position of the EU will largely determine the outcome of the negotiations and I would urge organisations to use continental networks, as we will be doing, to influence that side of the table.

In response to the EU’s negotiating guidelines, the prime minister was quick to say that the UK would maintain regulatory equivalence with the EU, thereby enabling a ‘fair and open trading environment’. These are welcome words, and the sector must hold the government to them. A failure to do so would put people, the environment and the economy at considerable risk.


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Brendan Costelloe was senior external relations officer (EU) at NCVO, leading on Brexit work.

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