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Making their voices heard: Relations between the UK’s nations and regions and the EU post-Brexit

Article by Dr Carolyn Rowe

April 7, 2022

Making their voices heard: Relations between the UK’s nations and regions and the EU post-Brexit

At a FPC event this week, we learnt three things about Britain, its constituent territories and the EU.[1] Firstly, that the UK’s engagement in the EU since Brexit does not adequately or appropriately reflect the multiplicity of perspectives on EU issues around the UK. Secondly, that since Brexit, opportunities for a more structured, UK-wide form of engagement or dialogue with our European partners has dissipated, running the risk that British voices and British experience are excluded from significant debates in and around the EU policy-making space. And thirdly, that a more flexible and inclusive approach to the development of European policy in the UK as we transition to become a ‘third country’ could help to foster more positive working relationships across the UK’s multiple jurisdictions and facilitate a holistic framework for interaction with our nearest trading bloc. The net result was to prompt some innovative thinking about how best to manage Britain’s future relationship with the EU.


The reality is that in a competitive marketplace of voices in Brussels, the UK’s perspectives risk being lost in a cacophony of noise. Now that we no longer have a seat around the negotiating table, the UK’s interests will be best served by strengthening its EU footprint at the present juncture. Effective political engagement starts with good intelligence, and that can easily be facilitated through establishing a robust interface for EU-UK dialogue in the Brussels space.


The UK and the EU since Brexit

International relations in the strictest sense remains something that national government is responsible for, and in the UK that is very clear; international relations have always been a reserved competence, never devolved. The EU’s policy portfolio however overlaps considerably with those policy fields which are devolved competences, and in areas such as fisheries and agriculture and various aspects of the environmental and climate change portfolio, there are very clear reasons as to why the devolved authorities in particular have had a legitimate need to be engaged in the European decision-making process.


But Brexit has fundamentally re-configured the opportunity structure for engaging with the EU and Britain’s European partners. So what now? How can we continue to maintain meaningful partnerships between Britain’s nations and regions and the European policy community? What specifically would be the purpose of such engagement? What kind of benefits can direct interactions between the nations and regions of the UK and the European policy community actually deliver?


The UK in the EU’s information ‘marketplace’

There are clear models which demonstrate how a multiplicity of ‘national’ voices can enhance working relations between a state and the EU, rather than damage them. Within the EU institutional ecosystem, that is to say, the numerous forums for dialogue and exchange of ideas on the policy level, most of which have emerged on the basis of a functional need to communicate rather than as a result of EU leadership, there is an expectation that the subnational components of individual states will be present. Regions and local authorities are part of the common currency of EU dialogue in the policy space. They serve as a key means to aggregate particular, locally-based voices and to channel these into the thinking in and around both EU funding programmes, such as those designed to support innovation and research, and on specific policies such as around renewables or technical standardisation processes. But how can we ensure that all parts of the UK are embedded in this practice?


The UK’s total EU representative footprint has shrunk massively in recent years as the reality of scarce public resources has meant that most of the UK’s regional outposts have had to close. Where we do see continued high level engagement is from the UK’s devolved authorities, notably the Scottish and Welsh presences in the city. The Scottish Government’s EU office for instance, has increased the size of its team and continues to focus on core policies of relevance to the delivery of the Scottish Government’s domestic priorities: on net zero and on inclusive growth, for instance. The Brussels office continues to manage Scotland’s effective partnerships with relevant contacts, such as regional representations from EU member states and beyond, with national governments and with other interest associations. By extension, these activities effectively connect the Scottish Government’s policy work with the EU institutions.


Many of our EU partners regretted the UK’s exit from the EU system not just for emotional reasons but for the cold fact that our expertise and our engagement are world class. We could efficiently, effectively and comfortably lead the policy debates in areas such as renewable energy or precision engineering. Our ability to showcase our industrial capacity or our technological expertise in core areas of EU policy was greatly enhanced through a multi-level, multi-venue presence in relevant EU circles. The UK operated not just in the formal processes for engagement with the EU institutions, but within the wider EU ecosystem, where organised interests from across the policy spectrum and across the world debate and exchange on a whole host of issues.


Embracing territorial perspectives on the EU

For federal states in the EU, such as Germany, and others with a significant degree of asymmetrical territorial autonomy, such as Spain, direct regional engagement in the European space offers the scope to improve the governance of domestic responsibilities with a significant EU overlap. Their combined substate workforce in Brussels outnumbers that of their national government’s representation. For the UK as a third country, however, the game play might look outwardly different, yet in a practical sense, the incentives for collaboration remain strong. Even at the regional level in non-devolved England there are significant overlaps between domestic policy responsibilities and the EU policy remit; the environmental, social, and economic challenges that substate governments face are often global in scope and require collaborative solutions involving governments, businesses and organisations around the world. The success of policymaking therefore depends on the ability to create and maintain positive relations with individuals, governments, business associations, community groups and academic institutions abroad.[2] For the Scots, the incentive to remain fully plugged into EU policy circles is sustained further by the Continuity Act (2021), which pins Scottish legislation to future EU regulations, thus allowing Scotland to remain aligned with EU rules in key areas of devolved competence such as agriculture, fisheries and the environment.


We can look to the example of Norway for how a ‘third country’ partner engages with the EU’s policy space. All of Norway’s regional players are active with an independent representation in and around the EU institutions, connecting with the EU institutions and other partners on issues relevant to policy delivery and to the wider cooperation set out in Norway’s numerous agreements with the EU. The Canadian provinces, to take a further example, showcase cultural links between themselves and Europe via a Brussels presence, and engage in policy dialogue with interest associations in the city, most recently for instance on the issue of social innovation in housing policy.


Towards a new British model of ‘paradiplomacy’? A more flexible and inclusive European policy

As the UK transitions to become a ‘third country’ in its relations with the EU, there remain huge unaddressed questions about how to enhance and strengthen links between all parts of the UK and our nearest neighbours. Since Brexit, there is more need than ever to have a multiplicity of British voices making their voices heard in that system, and looking for ways to exploit the opportunities presented by the EU and deliver real results for people and for businesses back here in the UK is hugely important. There are powerful arguments to support the development of a much more inclusive approach to Britain’s future European policy, one that embraces the multiplicity of perspectives around the UK and harnesses the potential to build positive relationships with our EU partners going forward.


This broader notion of developing a much more multi-level approach to international relations within the UK is regarded in some sectors as something of a ‘parallel’ or ‘paradiplomacy’ on international engagement. In a sense, this is about allowing substate interests from across all of Britain’s jurisdictions to flesh out in a practical sense the broad direction of foreign policy as it is set, offering the detail and the nuance that is often missing from the overarching agreements.


As the UK Parliament also begins its investigation into the British presence in the EU since Brexit, it is worth emphasising that the UK’s constitutional asymmetry should not act as a barrier to meaningful engagement between all parts of the UK and the EU.[3] Indeed, a more flexible approach to multi-level international relations offers the potential to foster the ties that bind us as a multi-national polity in the UK. Cooperation on shared agendas with our EU partners, bolstered by a more effective domestic intergovernmental framework for consensus building, such as is now promised within the new Interministerial Standing Committee system, could allow for the development of a more collaborative approach to European affairs. One that would work to harness the rich breadth of expertise across the UK on issues of European significance.[4] Such an approach, based on mutual respect for respective competences, emphasises cooperation and coordination reduces the incentives for conflictual posturing on European politics. Rather, it focuses squarely on delivering impactful returns to policy agendas here in the UK.


Carolyn is Senior Lecturer in Politics and co-directs the Aston Centre for Europe (@Aston_ACE), an inter-disciplinary hub for policy-relevant research and knowledge transfer on Europe at Aston. She is a project lead in a Europe-wide paradiplomacy network


Image by Rob984 under (CC).


[1] Aston Centre for Europe and FPC event, Making their voices heard: Relations between the UK’s nations and regions and the EU post-Brexit, FPC, March 2022,

[2] Rodrigo Tavares (2016) ‘Paradiplomacy. Cities and states as global players’, Oxford: OUP

[3] UK Parliament EU Scrutiny Committee, The UK’s EU representation: what has changed and how is it working?, UK Parliament, 2022,

[4] Professor Daniel Wincott, UK intergovernmental relations (IGR): machinery and culture changes, UK in a Changing Europe, January 2022,

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