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EU–UK Partnership Council

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what is the agenda for the next meeting of the EU–UK Partnership Council, and when that meeting will take place.

My Lords, we have not yet agreed a date for the next meeting of the Partnership Council. The trade and co-operation agreement requires the council to meet once a year, unless otherwise agreed by the co-chairs. This condition has been met with the Partnership Council’s meeting on 9 June to begin the process of implementing the TCA’s governance structures. All TCA specialised committees are now scheduled to meet before the end of this year.

As someone who may be nominated to be on the PPA overseeing the Partnership Council, I hope it will meet a little more frequently and with a little more content. The TCA included a declaration on the UK’s participation in EU programmes such as Horizon; it was agreed in principle but there was no time to finalise it before the agreement was signed. The issue was to go to the appropriate specialised committee for action “at the earliest opportunity”. A year on, nothing has happened on Horizon. Can the Minister ensure, even if the Partnership Council is not meeting, that the other committees he mentioned meet and get on with this so that we can participate in Horizon, which is so important for all our researchers?

My Lords, I very much agree with the thrust of the question of the noble Baroness. I think it is well known that we have wanted to get the Horizon arrangements up and running for some time; it is a matter of great disappointment that we have still not managed to do so. It is not 100% clear why, but that is the situation. However, the good news is that we have now agreed that there will be a meeting of the relevant specialised committee before the end of this year, provisionally on 21 December. I hope that might mark a change in the approach being taken and enable us to move this forward.

My Lords, the very first of those declarations made that day concerned financial services. There was an agreement that, by March 2021, an MoU would be concluded to get regulatory framework co-operation. That has not happened, although there were some technical discussions. Will this declaration feature on a future agenda for the Partnership Council, as it is certainly important? Until that MoU has been done, the EU will not assess us for the various equivalence decisions that are so vital to the City. China has 14 equivalence decisions, Mexico has 13 and we currently have two, which are time-limited.

My Lords, the noble Earl is right that there is a provision to agree an MoU. Indeed, there were discussions at the start of this year provisionally to agree that text. Those discussions have paused, again for reasons that we are not 100% clear about, although we can speculate. Naturally, we hope it will be possible to pick them up and move this forward, given that, as the noble Earl knows, some of the equivalence decisions are now imminent if not quite yet urgent.

My Lords, in addition to the Horizon programme, which is causing some concern, my noble friend will be aware of the ongoing anxiety about the REACH programme. For those who have been affected by the fact that the unilateral UK REACH programme is not as comprehensive but is proving more expensive than the EU REACH programme to which all were subscribed before, what representations can be made to the EU-UK Partnership Council in this regard?

My Lords, obviously we have inherited the REACH programme in the retained EU law that came on to the statute books and in the TCA. It is something we keep under close review, and it is certainly true that the costs of reregistering through REACH are considerable. We keep under close review the possibilities of trying to streamline and reduce them.

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that a slightly more proactive approach to holding meetings with the TCA might be better than simply standing at the Dispatch Box and saying that we have fulfilled the minimum requirement under law? Would he perhaps answer the part of the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that related to matters which might be discussed at such a future meeting? Has he given consideration, for example, to raising the issue of performing artists so that the work that the Government are doing bilaterally is supplemented by work with the EU where the EU has competence in these matters—for example, with cabotage?

My Lords, the Partnership Council is, of course, the highest body of the governance structure created by the TCA, and as such it does not need to meet very frequently. That is why the treaty commitment is to once a year. However, the specialised committees are important and look through the detail, and those have been running since June. As I said, all of those will shortly have met. So the governance structures are working well. We obviously have been giving thought to the agenda of the Partnership Council; it will no doubt take the issues that are of highest priority at that point. We touched on the question of touring artists at the 9 June meeting, and I imagine that we will do so again at the next meeting.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, wishes to speak virtually. I think this is a convenient point for me to call him.

My Lords, could we seek to place on the council agenda the whole issue of French threats to blockade channel ports, transport arrangements and compromised channel fishing rights? Can the Minister raise at such a meeting that it might be prudent for the United Kingdom to start moving cross-channel, roll-on roll-off trade to Belgian ports? We cannot go on under constant threats from France to block our European trade routes, because British jobs are at stake—and I say that as someone who loves France.

My Lords, I share the noble Lord’s opinion about France, and it is therefore all the more regrettable that France made threats against us earlier this year as a result of the ongoing disputes on fishing. I am very glad that those threats were withdrawn, and actually we have been able to continue the fishing discussions on a relatively constructive basis and bring them more or less to a conclusion recently. I think those threats would have been a breach of the treaty and therefore would have been something that it would have been necessary to raise at the Partnership Council—but I hope that we will not be in that situation when the Partnership Council meets.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on the Government’s engagement with the fora set up for the trade and co-operation and withdrawal agreements. Does he agree with me that if the EU is willing to show the same spirit of constructive engagement and flexibility required, the problems concerning the Northern Ireland protocol could be speedily resolved, enabling both the EU and the UK to benefit from a more constructive and long-lasting relationship as neighbours and trading partners?

My Lords, I of course very much agree with my noble friend’s question, and she is right to refer to the spirit of constructiveness. It is natural that the disputes catch attention, but it is worth dwelling on the fact that a huge amount of business in this very wide-ranging trade and co-operation agreement is carrying on satisfactorily. I hope that the same spirit might be shown in the ongoing discussions on the Northern Ireland protocol, which no doubt we will touch on.

My Lords, the key word in my noble friend’s Question is “partnership”. Both our economy and our place in the world will be stronger if disputes can be resolved amicably. Some commentators have likened the Minister’s negotiating strategy to puffing out his chest for weeks or months before finally getting down to the serious business of achieving consensus. On the issue of Northern Ireland, will he assure us that he is not intending to use the issue of the supply of medicines to the people of Northern Ireland as leverage in his negotiations?

My Lords, there has been a lot of discussion of my negotiating strategy over the last two and a half years. The fact that we achieved the broadest, most wide-ranging and most comprehensive trade and co-operation agreement ever reached is testimony to my wish to achieve partnership with the EU. On the issue of medicines, we continue to be in discussion with the EU on this subject, and I will talk again to Maroš Šefčovič tomorrow. I am not convinced that we are going to reach agreement on it by the end of the year, but we will try. Of course, it is a national priority that medicines should be available in Northern Ireland, as they are everywhere else in the UK.