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Fri 17 September 2021

A separate body – established to deal with post-Brexit chaos in the fishing industry – hasn’t met for three months, Sam Bright reveals

Only two of the 18 committees designed to negotiate the post-Brexit settlement between the EU and UK have met since the trade deal was signed in December 2020, Byline Times can reveal.

The EU-UK Trade Cooperation Agreement (TCA) established a number of ‘specialist committees’ that are intended to solve any issues that may arise in the new relationship between the two trading partners. According to Parliament’s European Scrutiny Committee, these groups are “powerful bodies” that can “consider important parts of the deal such as road haulage, air travel and fishing rights”.

The specialist committees sit beneath an EU-UK Partnership Council, which met for the first time on 9 June. This is co-chaired by the Cabinet Minister for EU Relations, David Frost, and European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. Since that date, meetings have been held by two specialist committees – on energy and on social security coordination. However, those on fisheries, road transport, and public procurement – among others – are yet to convene.

This lack of cooperation so far may come as a surprise, given the problems posed by the Brexit deal negotiated between the EU and the UK.

Soon after the new deal was implemented, widespread problems were reported by domestic fishermen who were struggling to export their goods to the continent. As reported extensively by Byline TV, there has also been emerging concerns about labour shortages, particularly in the road haulage industry. One haulier who spoke to Byline TV this week predicted that the country would soon see food shortages. “We can’t get lorry drivers post-Brexit; it’s causing chaos,” they said.

In response to a recent parliamentary question, the Government said that the “shortage of HGV drivers is longstanding and predates the UK’s decision to leave the EU”.

Meanwhile, the Government has quietly paused its Seafood Working Group – formed in January in an attempt to alleviate the problems experienced by fishermen. Its last meeting was held on 25 March, “when it was paused to allow officials to focus on developing longer-term system improvements with industry, which the group had identified as a priority”.

This is despite that fact that, just a few days earlier, a parliamentary committee heard evidence from fishermen suggesting that “while some things have settled down… we feel that at least 80% of the trading difficulties that have been encountered are still in existence today”.

Parliament’s European Scrutiny Committee announced on 21 June that it would be launching an inquiry into the Partnership Council and the specialist committees – investigating their structure, their powers, and their transparency commitments.

“Up to now, we have little idea how these bodies created by the trade deal operate behind the scenes,” said the committee’s chairman, Conservative Brexiter Bill Cash, when announcing the inquiry. “Given the impact of the decisions they can make, it is critical that the UK Government has the right tools to influence them effectively. Tensions are high and solutions to outstanding issues, particularly on Northern Ireland, need to be delicately managed.”

Indeed, the Northern Ireland Protocol – which governs the relationship between the EU, Britain and Northern Ireland – has proven to be a cause of conflict and turmoil over the past eight months. It essentially ties Northern Ireland more closely to EU standards and rules than the rest of the UK. However, the UK has so far resisted implementing many of the checks that are necessary under such an agreement, causing the EU to cry foul. Negotiations about the protocol are ongoing, while the agreement is increasingly becoming a defining issue in Northern Irish politics.

“We are currently working with the EU to agree dates for other specialised committee meetings,” Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Julia Lopez, said on 9 July. “The EU and UK have to agree meeting dates jointly.”

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