Efforts during the EU referendum to put a figure on how much policy emanates from Brussels provoked wry smiles in local government. Measuring the impact on UK domestic policy, including local government, is not an exact science and counting pieces of legislation does not offer a serious understanding of the impact and nature of the EU.
Equally, the relationships involved are often described as multi-level, but this is something of a misnomer as it implies tiers of government, usually perceived as a hierarchy, rather than the more complex inter-relationships involved. Local government has found that European institutions have been open and receptive to local concerns. The more appropriate metaphor, borrowing from studies in federalism, was that relationships resembled a marble cake (or cooperative federalism) rather than a layered cake.
A quarter of a century ago, the Audit Commission for England and Wales published a ‘Rough Guide to Europe: local authorities and the EC’ when local authority engagement with the EC was increasing following the Single European Act, the first major revision of original 1957 Treaty of Rome. It noted that about a third of English and Welsh local authorities had reviewed the EC’s effect on local government and fewer had developed a strategy. It urged local authorities to ensure that there was a member of staff responsible for European strategy.
UK membership of the EC coincided with the reform of Scottish local government. The new regional and island councils steadily grew closer to Brussels as relations with the old Scottish Office deteriorated, though often enough Europe became an arena in which Scottish local authorities and the Scottish Office could act together constructively. By the time of the next major reorganisation of Scottish local government in 1996, each of Scotland’s regions had some foothold in Brussels. The new unitary authorities were smaller and there was concern that existing relationships with Brussels would be disrupted. In 1995, the Convention of Scottish Local Government (COSLA) produced ‘The European Union – a key relationship with the new unitary authorities’ detailing the relationships and described the EU as a ‘high priority’ for local government.
The first Scottish local authority to appoint a European Liaison Officer had been Dumfries and Galloway back in 1976. In common with others that followed, early activities tended to focus on gaining grants, a situation common across member states. European Commission officials were aware that many authorities were not taking advantage of existing grants, then operating on a quota basis. Brussels was keen to enlist the support of local government in the implementation of its policies, and local government found a sympathetic ally.
As the EC developed into the EU, local authorities became aware of the deepening of the relationship. A process of Europeanisation of local government occurred that differed in detail from authority to authority. The EU dimension became a standard part of the gamut of local government responsibilities.
As the EU has developed, the complex relationship moved from being one in which local government lobbied Brussels’ institutions, to sharing responsibility over a wide range of public policy matters. Local government is at the delivery end of many policies with a European dimension. Social and environmental protection, health and consumer protection, working time directives, the transfer of undertakings, procurement and state aid, transport policies, and rural and maritime policies are among areas affected by the EU. But it has been a two-way relationship. Local government has had its voice heard and an array of European local authority bodies have emerged articulating trans-European interests. Lessons have been learned from other authorities in Europe including, most notably, in the possibilities for greater local autonomy.
The Brexit vote upends these relationships that have long been taken for granted and embedded in a system that has been far from conflictual compared with other forms of inter-governmental relations in the UK. Local government officers and councillors now join other policy-makers struggling to comprehend the far-reaching implications of the June 23rd vote. The absence of any plan for Brexit, or any indication as to the likely outcome of the negotiations, leave local authorities in a difficult position. Even outside the EU, the UK will be obliged to comply with many EU directives in order to gain access to European markets. It is unclear which areas will see policy continuities and which areas will be disrupted by withdrawal.
The uncertain future today requires the same European intelligence that the Audit Commission recommended a quarter of a century ago. Whether this means a person responsible for Brexit in each local authority or whether this can be done across all authorities or through some other mechanism, there is little doubt that local government will need to closely monitor and feed into negotiations. Developing a strategy to deal with the uncertainties of Brexit will be essential. Local authorities will not want to find themselves unable to respond to developments, without a contingency plan for whatever eventualities, in the way that UK central government now finds itself in.
Professor James Mitchell FAcSS, FRSE
Academy of Government
This blog originally appeared on the Local Government Information Unit website.