Local Government and the EU: the impact of Brexit

Evidence from Professor James Mitchell, Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh to Local Government and Communities Committee, December 14th 2016.


Understanding EU-Local government relations


The European Union, and its antecedents, was insinuated into the activities and responsibilities of local government in multifarious ways. Just as it has been difficult to estimate the proportion of law that has been determined ‘in Brussels’[1], so too is it difficult to estimate the extent to which the EU affects public policy and local government, either directly or indirectly. It is clear, however, that 44 years of membership has resulted in considerable interdependencies.


These relationships have been complex and are not easily summarised. The more appropriate metaphor is that of the ‘marble cake’ rather than the ‘layered cake’ ie the EU and local government relations are linked in complex, inter-connected ways. Often enough neither has exclusive or even dominant status. An emphasis has long been placed on partnership in the operation of EC-local government relations. In part this reflected what scholars have referred to as resource dependency, ie each sphere of government requires the resources of others to successfully make and implement a policy. The importance of other spheres of government (devolved and UK central government in the UK and similar across the EU) complicate matters further. Local government has usually been at the delivery end of the process.


The Audit Commission for England and Wales published A Rough Guide to Europe: local authorities and the EC, a useful summary of EC-local government relations in 1991.[2] Up until that time, most emphasis had been placed on ‘grantsmanship’ ie the tendency to focus on gaining financial support for local government and related projects from the European Communities.[3] Much of the early lobbying work was focused on influencing early decisions and identifying pockets of EC funding. Local authorities were increasingly aware of the importance of the European dimension and developing direct links with European institutions including the Commission. But considerable effort was devoted to information gathering, seeking to be ahead of the game in identifying likely impacts of European policy making.


The prospect of a single market – Project 1992 – was an important development[4] for local government as well as member state governments, the private sector and other bodies. The Audit Commission identified three main ways in which Europe affects local authorities:

Ÿ Euro-regulation imposes unavoidable obligations to implement, enforce and monitor EC legislation;

Ÿ European economic integration creates new opportunities for (and pressures on) the local economic base; and

Ÿ Euro-funds offer potential support for the local economy and for a range of local authority projects.[5]


Scottish local authorities, in common with others elsewhere, established office. Dumfries and Galloway was the first Scottish local authority to establish a European Liaison Officer. A process of Europeanisation of local government[6] occurred. Within tw decades of membership, no local authority could afford to be without intelligence on European affairs. By 1995, CoSLA had identified the EC as a ‘high priority’ for local government.[7]


EU policies directly affecting local government range across policy sectors from social and environmental protection, education, health and consumer protection, working time directives, the transfer of undertakings, procurement and state aid, transport policies, and rural and maritime policies. European networks of local authorities have been established allowing for shared understanding of best practice and permitting the articulation of common interests. Just as important have been the indirect effects of EU policies. The economic consequences of EU membership (and thereby Brexit) have had a considerable impact on local government. The EU’s four freedoms – in goods, labour, capital, and services – are difficult to quantify but the impact has been felt by local government.


Brexit means Brexit


The combination of the complexity of the relationship and uncertainty as to the precise nature of Brexit creates challenges for local government. Local authorities are keenly aware that Brexit will have both direct and indirect impacts and these will likely have different short, medium and long-term implications. The only certainty is that Brexit presents an additional challenge to local authorities at a difficult time


Early research on local government and the EC found that while much activity was often described as lobbying, the reality was often more focused on information-gathering, identifying new policies, opportunities and challenges as early as possible. The same approach seems as necessary now and in the foreseeable future for local government. Brexit may eventually mean a loosening of relations with the EU (it is difficult to conceive of a time when relations would be completely severed even if the UK is no longer a member of the EU), but in the short-medium term local government may need to focus even more than it has to date on developments to gather information, monitor and prepare for the likely outcome of Article 50 negotiations. Brexit will require even greater engagement with EU developments than at present in the short-medium term to monitor and prepare for the nature and consequences of Brexit.


A Scottish Voice


While there may be differences between Scottish central and local government – exaggerated in the context of local elections in May 2017 – there is ample scope for cooperation and collaborative working in preparing for Brexit. It would, however, be difficult to see how the Scotland Office – at Ministerial or civil servants – could be involved in any such articulation given that the UK Government is the principal in negotiations. It would be unrealistic to expect the Scotland Office to adopt a public position different from other parts of UK Government.


Early preparations by local authorities and Scottish Government might focus on the broad outline of Brexit. Expressed in terms of the spectrum from hard to soft Brexit, both Scottish central and local government agree that the best option lies with soft Brexit though the precise nature of this will require elaboration. Given local government’s role in delivering services and with its own democratic mandate, direct involvement of local government in helping formulate the Scottish response to Brexit would seem appropriate. Much of the work will continue to be information gathering. It seems most likely that the Scottish voice will stand outside the process of negotiations though every effort to gain access to negotiations between UK Government and the EU. As progress is made in negotiations and the shape of Brexit becomes clearer, a more focused approach should be possible including identifying opportunities as well as the obvious challenges resulting from Brexit. Such opportunities are likely to be limited and care will need to be taken to consider the implications of any effort to alter existing policy and law emanating from the EU. The unintended consequences of staking out a distinct policy position need to be considered and the response of EU27 considered.


[1] Estimates vary (Bill Cask Oct 2011: 50% of ‘economic laws’; Chuka Umunna Oct 2011 ‘around half of all new regulation’; see House of Commons library Research paper 10/62 Oct 2010.

[2] Audit Commission for England and Wales, A Rough Guide to Europe: local authorities and the EC, London, HMSO.

[3] This was not restricted to local government or local government in the UK. See Brigid Laffan’s “While you’re over there in Brussels, get us a grant”: The management of the structural funds in Ireland’, Irish Political Studies, vol.4, 1989, pp.43-57.

[4] The Single European Act was the first major revision of the 1957 Treaty Of Rome and set out the objective of a single European market by 1992 and was signed in February 1986 and came into effect in July 1987 and gave considerable impetus to the process of European integration. It had the strong support of the then UK Government.

[5] Audit Commission for England and Wales 1992, Op Cit., p.7.

[6] Amongst the best work on this process is a doctoral thesis by Stephen Herbert, ‘The Europeanisation of Local Government in Western Scotland, 1975-97’, Glasgow University PhD, 2000.

[7] Convention of Scottish local Government, The European Union – a key relationship with the new unitary authorities’, Edinburgh, CoSLA.

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