Comment

Civil society reinforcing the bridges between EU and UK

Jack O'Connor / Feb 2023

Image: Shutterstock


 

The EU-UK Follow-up Committee (Committee), set up in March 2021 to maintain and strengthen relations between EU and UK organised civil society, is a working body of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), which contributes to strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the European Union by enabling its civil society organisations (CSOs) to express their views at European level.

To advise the EU institutions on the implementation of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement (WA), including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (NIP), the Committee has engaged with UK social partners and other CSOs, as well as with umbrella organisations, such as Civil Society Alliance UK, and independent regional organisations, such as the Centre for Cross-border Studies. To keep pace with developments, the Committee has hosted various UK and EU speakers from the House of Lords European Affairs Committee, the UK Mission to the EU, European Commission, EU Delegation to the UK, and others.

The Committee has been primarily in charge of monitoring the WA, which among others governs citizens' rights that have a significant impact on individual citizens in both the EU and the UK, and the NIP, which due to its key importance for safeguarding the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, has been particularly complex and politically sensitive. A mutually acceptable and sustainable solution to the NIP is therefore crucial for the future EU-UK relationship, and could serve as a foundation on which to build further cooperation.

Against this background, the Committee carried out a mission to the UK, which took place from 17 to 21 October 2022, in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Belfast, and was attended by representatives of more than 60 business organisations, trade unions, third-sector civil society organisations.

In addition, on 7 and 8 November 2022, EESC member Tanja Buzek, chair of the EU Domestic Advisory Group under the TCA, and I, took part in the second meeting of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, where I presented the preliminary results of our EESC report.

The results of these consultations are showcased in the Information Report on the Implementation of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (EESC report), adopted unanimously by the EESC at its plenary session on 25 January 2023.

The EESC report has been already shared with European and UK decision-makers and stakeholders. By complementing the existing framework with civil society perspectives, it aims to contribute to enriching the EU-UK political dialogue, resolving outstanding issues between the EU and the UK, and promoting a joint reflection on their future relationship.

 

More specifically, the EESC report:

  • Highlights the enthusiasm of UK CSOs for engagement and cooperation with the EU, its institutions and European organised civil society by fostering civil society links through existing and any future formal structures that facilitate and deepen their cooperation;
  • Restates that the EU-UK relationship is heavily burdened by the impasse over the NIP, and that a mutually agreed resolution of this issue could be key to opening the way towards a constructive, mutually beneficial, and wider EU-UK relationship, optimising the potential that lies in the TCA;
  • Shares the views of UK CSOs that the domestic advisory groups and civil society forum need to be fleshed out, developed and supported. For instance, both the EU DAG and UK DAG appear to lack representation of young people.
  • Stresses the views of UK youth organisations that the loss of free EU movement and people-to-people contacts arising from the UK's decision not to remain in EU programmes such as Erasmus+ is one of the most negative and undesirable consequences of Brexit. With regard to this, the EESC report welcomes the UK-EU PPE's unanimous agreement to raise the issue of a future mobility scheme for young people between the UK and the EU with the UK-EU Partnership Council;
  • Notes that progress has been made towards addressing concerns over the implementation of the provisions of the EU-UK WA protecting the rights of citizens. However, it regrets that so many problems persist. These are causing considerable distress and inconvenience and could have dire consequences in the future. Liberal democracies should not allow individual citizens and their families to become collateral damage of their political differences;
  • Sees potential to develop deeper linkages with UK CSOs by working with the European Committee of the Regions, whose CoR-UK Contact Group has called for the recognition of local and regional authorities in the institutional framework in its opinion adopted on 28 April 2022.

 

All the evidence collected during our fact-finding mission and via other sources shows that social partners and third-sector organisations across the UK have an overwhelming desire for a deeper, more cooperative, and constructive relationship between the UK and the EU. By adopting the EESC report unanimously, European civil society has shown the same desire, and I strongly believe that the currently unsteady bridges between the EU and the UK can be reinforced by their civil society on both sides of the Channel.

 

Jack O'Connor

Jack O'Connor

February 2023

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