The Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC), which is a body comprising representatives from the UK Government, the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Welsh Government, meets at regular intervals to cover aspects of Government relations, both foreign and domestic. Meetings are chaired by the UK Prime Minister.

The Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations

At the JMC’s plenary meeting on 24th October, the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) was discussed. Committee members discussed how the constituent parts of the UK should work together to ensure that the interests of all parts of the UK were protected and advanced, and to develop a UK approach and objectives for the forthcoming negotiations on “Brexit”. It was agreed to take forward a multi‑lateral engagement through a new Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations.

As regards Brexit, the new Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations has the following terms of reference:

  • The UK and devolved Governments will work collaboratively to discuss each Government’s requirements of the future relationship with the EU.
  • They will seek to agree a UK approach to, and objectives for, the Article 50 negotiations.
  • They will provide oversight of negotiations with the EU, to ensure, as far as possible, that outcomes agreed by all four Governments are secured from these negotiations.
  • They will discuss issues stemming from the negotiation process which may impact upon or have consequences for the UK Government, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government or the Northern Ireland Executive.

There are different approaches and different views of the UK’s exit from the EU amongst the Governments of the various home nations. The UK Government has made it known that it hopes, however, through the JMC on EU Negotiations, to effect a “four nation Brexit”. How might this be achieved?

The Challenges of a “Four Nation Brexit”

The Institute for Government released in October 2016 a briefing paper on how the UK and devolved Governments should work together on leaving the EU. The paper acknowledges that there are significant challenges to be overcome in attempting to arrive at a “four nation Brexit”. It further acknowledges that whilst the UK Parliament remains sovereign, imposing a Brexit settlement in the absence of consent from the devolved Governments would run contrary to convention and to the spirit of devolution, and would be reckless strategy for a UK Government committed to the Union “since it would seriously undermine relationships between the four Governments, and increase the chances of Scottish independence and rifts in Northern Ireland’s fragile power‑sharing arrangements”.

Preventing a Constitutional Crisis

The paper suggests that the devolved Governments should be treated as the UK Government’s partners in the Brexit process, not as “mere consultees alongside business or other lobby groups”. It acknowledges that this approach to the Brexit negotiations may not be smooth. However, certain steps are set out, which are intended to prevent political spats from escalating “into a full blown constitutional crisis”. The steps include:

  • Having top level political commitment;
  • Agreeing principles for joint working;
  • Having clarity about what will be agreed,
  • Ensuring that there is intergovernmental machinery dedicated to bringing together lead Ministers for Brexit from each of the four governments;
  • Sharing information and evidence; and
  • Having effective co‑ordination within Whitehall.

Whether the members of the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations decide to follow these steps remains to be seen.