Does leaving the EU affect our ability to apply for funding? Since the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, a lot of the people I work with in charitable organisations have been raising the issue of what the vote to leave means for the third sector. I thought it would be helpful to correct some possible misconceptions, and do some informed crystal-ball thinking about what the future will hold.
Today I’ll look at the immediate situation, by which I mean months and years as well as this week; I’m intending another post to consider what the EU ever did for us (in the third sector) and what might change about EU and other funding once the dust settles.
The first observation I would make is that at the moment, and for at least a year (almost certainly two years or more) to come, this country remains a member of the EU. The Presidents of the European Council, of the European Commission, and of the European Parliament made a joint statement on the day after the referendum. Among their other points, they were clear that until the negotiations about the UK’s departure are concluded, the UK benefits from and is bound by “all the rights and obligations that derive from [membership].” Plainly this also applies to the European rights and obligations of individuals and institutions in the UK.
One might wonder if the referendum decision would have a negative impact, in terms of the sentiment of Commission grant funders towards UK applicants if nothing else. But those of us who have struggled with European bureaucracy can now see the other side of the coin: a legalistic, rule-bound system might be the very devil to wrestle with if you are writing a bid, but at least it provides the reassurance that your application will be considered according to the rules. So until we’re really out, your application is as good as (or, I hope, better than) anybody else’s.
Also, it’s worth checking who is actually doing the assessment: I made an Erasmus application this year which goes to the “National Agency”, in this case the British Council. I shudder to think of the state of morale in that body now, but at least they’ll be motivated to put their best European foot forward while there’s still time – and perhaps help to maximise the take-up while we can still apply.
So if your organisation has an application for a grant in place or is planning one now, there is no reason why that should be treated any differently than it was before the referendum result. And you can still put in a bid while the status quo remains. This is the law.
How long will this situation last? It will be a while. First of all, the referendum (like all UK referendums) is advisory, which means it doesn’t have any legal effect of itself. That doesn’t mean it has no effect: Parliament has asked the advice of the people and our politicians know that if they reject that advice they will get a dusty answer. But how that result is put into effect is a more nuanced question.
The Prime Minister has announced his resignation and, as part of that decision he declined, until he has a successor, to begin the process of leaving the EU. That is a notification (almost certainly to be a letter to the President of the European Commission) under Article 50 of the EU Treaty currently in force (the Lisbon Treaty) announcing the intention to leave. Until the letter is sent, the EU and other member states are powerless to do anything to bring matters on more quickly, for all that they have been calling for a quick negotiation. As Mr Cameron isn’t willing to begin our EU departure himself, we are dependent on the stately progress of the Conservative party’s leadership election process to give us a new Prime Minister who should then, in her own good time, send the Article 50 notification.
That triggers a two-year deadline to agree terms of departure, though that deadline can be extended by unanimous agreement between all member states. It seems unlikely that unravelling and replacing the existing agreements will take much less than two years and it is not unlikely that the deadline will indeed be extended: it is in absolutely nobody’s interest that the UK simply fall out of the EU by effluxion of time.
In that event, one fears for the interests of every Slovakian in her potato-funded Lincolnshire caravan, and every Briton in his forex-funded Dordogne gîte, at the mercy of their host government’s ungoverned decision. To say nothing of the rather more serious chaos that such a situation would inflict upon trade.
A side point which is interesting if not directly impacting on our sector just yet: the Article 50 negotiations are just about leaving. There are further, future negotiations likely on the future UK/EU relationship, or between our country and individual EU members. Switzerland began these in 1972 and they’re not done yet.
My conclusion? For the next two years, and probably more, the UK will remain part of the EU as a matter of law and fact; and the way the EU system works, until we’re truly out it won’t make any difference to your application if we’re looking like we’re in for two years or in for two hundred.