The European Parliament and Brexit (Part II)
by Francis Jacobs (formerly European Parliament staff)
Brexit has important potential implications for the European Parliament, reducing its size, altering the composition of its political groups and its overall political balance, and posing questions about the ongoing role of both British MEPs and British staff members within the Parliament. At the same time the European Parliament is itself a significant actor in the Brexit process, not as a direct negotiator but in helping to shape the debate, and also in having veto power both on the EU-UK divorce agreement and on the longer-term EU-UK relationship. The first of these two facets of the European Parliament and Brexit was discussed in Part I, and the second is discussed here (Part II).
The European Parliament as an Actor in the Brexit Process
The European Parliament does not participate directly in the negotiations with the UK, but will have to give its consent on the final terms of Brexit and thus has a potential veto power both on the Article 50 withdrawal agreement, and on any new framework agreement between the UK and the EU. It can seek to leverage this power in order to influence the shape of the negotiations.
Although Eurosceptic views and views supporting Brexit or seeking its emulation in other countries are very much in the minority within the EP, they are much better represented there than in either the Commission or the European Council. Indeed, Nigel Farage remains as a political group leader within the Parliament, as is the British Conservative Syed Kamall, not to mention Brexit sympathizers of other nationalities such as Marine Le Pen. In practice, however, the majority within the EP have set out principles for the negotiations that are close to, and complementary to, those in the Commission and Council, although more detailed on a number of points.
The Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) has had a special responsibility to monitor Brexit negotiations, and to look at the overall institutional implications of Brexit for the EU as a whole, as well as holding hearings and commissioning studies by external experts, one of which, on possible technological solutions for cross-border transit problems, has even been cited favourably by some British Brexiters. Other EP committees have examined how Brexit will affect their own specific policy areas.
In addition, day-to-day developments in the negotiations have been monitored not just by the Parliament’s normal leadership structures, but also by a special contact group, in which the ALDE Group leader, Guy Verhofstadt, has had the most visible coordinating role.
The main European Parliament input into the Brexit process has been through adoption of a series of resolutions at key moments in the negotiations. Its initial Brexit guidelines were adopted on 5 April 2017, followed by others on 3 October 2017 and 13 December 2017 on the state of play of negotiations with the UK. The latter resolution suggested that an association agreement between the EU and the UK might provide an appropriate framework for the future relationship, and could consist of four main pillars: trade and economic relations, thematic cooperation, internal security and foreign policy and security cooperation.
This has since been developed in more detail in the most recent EP resolution that was adopted at the plenary on 14 March 2018 by a vote of 544 in favour, 110 against and 51 abstentions, after an alternative resolution sponsored by UKIP MEPs had been rejected, along with amendments to the main resolution put forward from the right by UKIP and from the left by the GUE Group.
The resolution was supported by the vast majority of the EPP, S&D, ALDE and Green/EFA Groups and opposed by right wing Eurosceptic members and a handful of others. Other groups were more divided., not least because the resolution was supported by the Italian Five Star Movement and the Polish Law and Justice Party, who are allied respectively within the EP with UKIP and with the British Conservatives. No less than 69 of the 73 UK MEPs took part in the vote, with 10 supporting the text, 38 opposing it and 21 abstaining.
The adopted resolution calls for the framework for such an EU-UK association to be set out in a political declaration accompanying the withdrawal agreement. It considers that « the advantage of an association agreement for the future relationship is that it provides a flexible framework allowing for varying degrees of cooperation across a wide variety of policy areas ». Such an agreement would also avoid « a prolilferation of bilateral agreements and the shortcomings which characterise the EU’s relationship with Switzerland ». It argues that continued UK membership of the Internal Market and Customs Union would be the best option, believing that the UK’s current position is only compatible with a trade agreement that could form the trade and economic pillar of an association agreement, but is flexible about looking at other models if the UK itself re-considers its red lines.
The resolution goes into much more detail than the European Council’s draft guidelines. On future EU-UK governance arrangements, it underlines the importance of a joint committee for overseeing the implementation of any agreement and even moots the possibility of an alternative dispute settlement mechanism to the European Court of Justice but only « if it offers equivalent guarantees of independence and impartiality ».
The resolution has even been welcomed by some in the UK, not least because of its more flexible tone and because it goes further than the other EU institutions have done in sketching out a possible bespoke deal for the future EU-UK relationship. It has done this while respecting the European Commission and Council’s key points of principle, not least as regards avoiding a hard border in Ireland. The EP will continue to adopt new resolutions throughout the rest of the Brexit process, but the real test will come when it has to give its consent on the final outcomes of the negotiations.
Francis Brendan Jacobs worked for the European Parliament from just before direct elections in 1979 until the end of April 2016. Much of his career was as a staff member on various European Parliament committees and from 2006-2016 he was the head of the European Parliament’s Information Office in Ireland. He is co-author (with Richard Corbett and Darren Neville) of the classic textbook, The European Parliament, now in its 9th edition. He is currently based in Ireland, giving lectures on the European Union at UCD, Maynooth and other Irish Universities, as well as in a number of other countries. His latest work, The EU after Brexit: Institutional and Policy Implications, will be published in June 2018.