At its January plenary session, the EESC adopted an information report on the Implementation of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The report shows that UK organised civil society is strongly in favour of a deeper and more constructive relationship with their EU counterparts and the EU as a whole. This could contribute to the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and help maximise the potential of the EU-UK Trade Cooperation Agreement.
The evidence collected during the EESC's fact-finding visit to all four parts of the UK, based on first-hand contact with more than 60 civil society organisations, demonstrates their enthusiasm for further engagement and cooperation with the EU, its institutions and European organised civil society.
The relationship between the EU and the UK is very important for people on both sides of the Channel. However, as matters stand, that relationship has been hamstrung by the deadlock regarding the Protocol. The situation has been made even more difficult because even though the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified by the UK Parliament, the UK government is now insisting that the EU make "concessions" on the terms of the Protocol.
EESC member Jack O'Connor, rapporteur for the information report, said that
Given the extreme gravity of the situation, it is imperative that we work on a mutually acceptable and sustainable solution. The Protocol's deadlock has the potential to have significant consequences for the Trade Cooperation Agreement, and is threatening to reverse the gains made in the Northern Ireland peace process under the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
It is very encouraging that UK civil society organisations are keen to strengthen the ties with their EU counterparts, as this could make it more likely that a solution will be found for both the technical issues arising from the Protocol and a number of other problems.
Citizens' rights and youth mobility
The information report echoes the views of UK organised civil society, particularly youth organisations: they feel that the loss of free EU movement stemming from the UK's decision to bow out of EU programmes such as Erasmus+ is one of the most harmful outcomes of Brexit, depriving young people of educational, professional, social and personal opportunities.
To mitigate this loss, at its meeting in November 2022 the EU-UK Parliamentary Partnership Assembly made the case for a future mobility scheme for young British people with the EU-UK Partnership Council. The EESC welcomes this idea, but would also point out that young people are insufficiently represented in both the EU and UK Domestic Advisory Groups, a shortcoming which should be corrected.
The report notes that despite some progress on addressing concerns about the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement in terms of safeguarding citizens' rights, it could not be said that all the difficulties have now been solved. EU citizens still face delays, backlogs and problems with digital-only status – and many other problems as well.
On the other hand, UK citizens living in the EU have been more or less left to their own devices, since the organisations tasked with defending their rights are struggling financially and consequently understaffed. The first step towards remedying this unfortunate situation would be to provide the largest organisation for UK citizens in the EU, "British in Europe", with the financial resources needed to continue its important work.
The EU-UK Follow-up Committee was set up in March 2021 in order to maintain and strengthen relations between EU and UK civil society organisations and monitor the Withdrawal Agreement. The implementation of the Protocol entails many complex challenges in addition to the economic ones, which is why it is so important to monitor both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol.