The speech made by Michael Ellis, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, at the inaugural meeting of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly on 12 May 2022.
I am delighted to be here at this inaugural meeting of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, which of course couldn’t come at a more critical moment for European democracy.
This forum is an important part of the governance that supports the new UK-EU relationship, but it is also a link between democratic representatives and the people that we serve. I hope that the following couple of days will provide an opportunity for Parliamentarians across the English Channel to exchange ideas on how we can get the most out of our new relationship – to the benefit of course of our respective citizens and businesses. Ukraine
Because right now, in Europe, as we all know, there is another parliament which has continued to meet even as rockets and artillery shells fall around it.
And today, members of Ukraine’s Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, are representing fellow Ukrainians and carrying out the functions of Ukrainian democracy.
They have continued to meet throughout Russia’s illegal invasion, even as Russian troops occupied the outskirts of the capital Kiev, even as their members trained to use weapons to defend their city. So it is all the more vital that our collective support for Ukraine – parliament to parliament, has been included on the PPA’s agenda.
The European Parliament’s resolution on the 1st of March, calling for defensive weapons for Ukraine and punitive sanctions against Moscow, led the call on many of your governments to act. The UK Parliament has also been united in support of our action on Ukraine, and the UK has worked closely with the EU to take that action, including:
six waves of punitive sanctions against the Russian economy, cutting off funding for its war effort;
military, humanitarian and economic assistance for Ukraine; and
measures to reduce our reliance on Russian hydrocarbons.
These are significant steps, but we must be prepared to go further. And the UK will be working with our international partners to ensure freedom and democracy are strengthened through a network of economic and security partnerships around and across the globe.
Trade and Cooperation Agreement
While Putin has sought to sow division among Western alliances, the war in Ukraine has instead drawn the UK and EU together. That is welcome after the inevitable strains which the change in constitutional relationship brought since 2016. We see the EU as an essential partner in a global alliance of shared values – and we want success for the Union and we hope the EU wants that for us too.
And our Trade and Cooperation Agreement has now been operating for a year and a half. And our economic relationship is generally working well. The TCA – the world’s largest zero-tariff, zero-quota FTA – is helping businesses adjust to the new commercial environment.
And the governance of the TCA is running smoothly. The Partnership Council, and all of the Specialised Committees, successfully convened last year. And through these channels, we have ensured effective implementation of the agreement and we’ve engaged in technical discussions on matters ranging from intellectual property to road transport.
And where we have identified issues regarding compliance for example, or opportunities to reduce unnecessary barriers to trade – such as EU import restrictions on SPS products or the VAT and debt protocol – we have used these committees to formally register our concerns.
And some positive steps have also been taken by both sides outside of the structures of the TCA. Data adequacy decisions have been adopted for example.
We have concluded bilateral aviation agreements on all-cargo rights with 19 EU Member States.
And the UK as COP president continues to engage closely with Commission Executive Vice-President Timmermans on climate change priorities.
And while these positive steps are welcome, we have also faced some challenges on the TCA. And it’s right to say that two stand out in particular.
We are deeply disappointed that the EU countries continue to delay formalising the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe (and Copernicus, Euratom Research and Training). There is no practical reason for this delay – the EU is not fulfilling the commitments they made when the TCA was agreed. It is frankly disheartening that a number of countries have now successfully associated to Horizon, including for example Israel and Kosovo, while the EU continues to delay the UK association. And this is purely political – the EU have drawn links to the Northern Ireland Protocol, an entirely separate issue. And the EU’s approach is putting long term collaboration – on what are shared challenges – at risk.
Now we have done literally everything that is required on our side – all that is required is for the EU to complete its formal processes, and to give its delegates in the Specialised Committee a mandate to agree to adopt draft Protocols that were agreed under the TCA. The UK stands ready to become a significant financial contributor to Horizon, and that would be for the benefit of UK and EU scientists, researchers and business alike – and it is the EU which is preventing this.
Now, the greatest challenges we face, like tackling global pandemics, reaching net-zero or finding new sources of energy, they all require cooperation across our borders.
Whatever our other disagreements, holding back the ability of UK and EU scientists to work together benefits no one and sends an unfortunate message about the politicisation of cooperation, which risks making it harder frankly for third countries to rely on cooperation with the Union. So we continue to press the EU to resolve this issue, but have been clear that we cannot wait forever; we will be ready to deliver domestic alternatives. Now the second area, we need to accelerate the development of new efficient electricity trading arrangements which were due to come into force last month. The UK has set out its significant concern about these delays and remain clear that we expect this work to proceed at pace. Efficient electricity trading will catalyse the development of renewables in the North Sea – supporting our shared net zero ambitions and plans to reduce reliance on Russian hydrocarbons.
So I welcome the fact that both of these points will be considered by the PPA over the coming two days. And Her Majesty’s Government will consider carefully any recommendations this forum may wish to put to the Partnership Council.
Now the UK and EU have worked closely together on implementing the Withdrawal Agreement since 2020 of course, and there have been positive examples of good cooperation, including on agreements related to the Sovereign Base Area in Cyprus and in Gibraltar.
Citizens’ Rights continue to be a priority for the UK Government. We take our obligations very seriously and we have implemented the arrangements we agreed under the Withdrawal Agreement and we have done so in good faith. The EU Settlement Scheme has been an overwhelming success, with over 6.5 million applications and almost 5.8 million grants of status made so far. The Government’s approach to the Settlement Scheme is long standing and there is no ‘legal uncertainty’ for EU citizens in the UK. Whilst cooperation with the EU has been constructive, the UK continues to hold some concerns. Outstanding issues include ongoing reports of UK nationals facing difficulties accessing their rights in declaratory Member States, non-compliant resident processes, insufficient safeguards and a lack of detail on appeals processes. These issues are having a concrete impact on the lives of UK nationals in Member States, and we call on the EU to take proactive and immediate action to resolve those issues.
On Northern Ireland, our overriding priority has been, and continues to be, preserving peace and stability. The situation as it stands, following the election, is clearly undermining the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and creating an unacceptable situation in Northern Ireland.
Peace in Northern Ireland is based on respect between all communities, and it’s based on the consent of those communities – current arrangements with the EU are undermining that. We will not allow this to continue, we must fix the domestic impact of the Protocol, we must stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland and form an Executive – thereby protecting the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.
The current situation with the Protocol is not working – it has created a two tier system where people in Northern Ireland are not treated the same way as everyone else in the UK.
I want to take this opportunity to be clear about a few things. Firstly, we have never actually proposed scrapping the Protocol and we do not intend to – because there will always have to be a treaty governing the UK-EU relationship in respect of Northern Ireland. However we do need to see significant changes to it. We believe in the founding objectives of the protocol – to protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, to ensure Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK and the UK internal market, and to provide assurance to the EU that the single market is protected. But clearly, in its current form, the Protocol is not delivering on those internal objectives.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, we have engaged in negotiations with the European Union in good faith. Vice President Šefčovič has tried to find solutions within the narrow mandate he has been given. But I regret to say that it is our clear view that the European Union’s proposals would take us backwards from where we are today. It’s therefore hugely disappointing that the EU have confirmed that they will never change their mandate, and because of that, the situation is now very serious.
We have gone out of our way to ensure none of our proposals risk undermining the integrity of either the EU or the UK’s single market. We have created new systems to provide the EU with commercial data they have been asking for – giving them confidence no goods are being smuggled into either market.
And we will continue to talk with the EU, but we will not let that stand in the way of protecting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. As both the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have made clear, we will take action to protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement if solutions cannot be found.
From the Palace of Westminster to the Verkhovna Rada – many parliament buildings across Europe, ladies and gentlemen, have been repaired or rebuilt from damage in wartime. This building here stands as a testament to the peace Europe has largely enjoyed for most of our lifetimes.
As that peace is threatened by Putin, and it is all the more vital that parliamentarians work together in defence of our shared democratic values.
Whilst these past years have not been easy for UK-EU cooperation – perhaps unavoidably so – I think these recent months have been a reminder that there is a bigger picture. And in that geopolitical bigger picture the UK and EU are not only natural, but we’re essential partners.
We will, of course, have differences of view, as we do today on the Northern Ireland Protocol, where we are asking the Union as friends and allies to understand our primary responsibility to protect the peace and stability of our country. But there is far more that does and should unite us.
And I very much hope that this inaugural meeting of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly can make progress on these issues, and show that we elected representatives can be the driving force of a new era of UK-EU partnership. To benefit all of the people we proudly represent. Thank you very much.