The Parliamentary Dimension of Brexit
Ian Cooper (Dublin City University)
The next event at the DCU Brexit Institute will feature numerous parliamentarians from across the EU. This is an opportune moment to consider the parliamentary dimension of Brexit.
Brexit has been largely an executive-driven process, in essence a prolonged negotiation between the UK government and EU officials. The only parliaments directly involved in the process are the UK parliament, which voted to trigger Article 50 and must approve the final agreement (the “meaningful vote”), and the European Parliament, which also must approve the withdrawal agreement.
According to the terms of Article 50, the withdrawal agreement need only be approved by a qualified majority of governments in the Council. However, any future trade agreement with the UK will probably be a “mixed agreement” which must be approved by all EU national parliaments.
It is worth inquiring into the various ways the other parliaments of the EU are overseeing the Brexit process (the subject of a panel held tomorrow at the ECPR Conference in Hamburg in which the author is participating). In the Irish Parliament, for example, a special select committee of the Seanad, chaired by Senator Neale Richmond, held hearings and produced a report on Brexit in 2017. Similar bodies were established by the Italian Camera dei deputati and the Spanish Cortes Generales.
The parliaments of the EU can also play a collective role in the oversight of Brexit, such as through inter-parliamentary conferences. For example, COSAC, a twice-yearly gathering of the EU affairs committees of all EU parliaments, including the EP, will address the issue at its next meeting in November. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, will address the group and take questions from the assembled parliamentarians, as he has done at two previous meetings. COSAC will also publish a report in November detailing the various ways in which national parliaments are dealing with Brexit.
There is also an oversight role for smaller, more specialized interparliamentary bodies. Given Ireland’s uniquely vulnerable position, its ongoing political cooperation with the UK during and after the Brexit process is imperative. The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA) brings together members of the British and Irish parliaments, as well as from the parliaments/assemblies of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Crown dependencies (Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man).
BIPA was created as a symbol of British-Irish reconciliation, but lately it has been forced to deal with an acrimonious subject – Brexit. This has become a frequent topic of discussion at its twice-yearly meetings. In addition, committees of the BIPA have produced reports on Brexit, most recently on British-Irish Trade and the Border and on Brexit and the Agri-Food Sector.
Another question is how Brexit will affect inter-parliamentary cooperation in the EU. The Treaty of Lisbon formally gave national parliaments a collective role in EU politics for the first time. The UK parliament has historically been one of the most active participants in inter-parliamentary relations, and a champion of an enhanced role for national parliaments in EU affairs. Its absence will deal a blow to interparliamentary cooperation.
In fact, the Brexit referendum has already had a negative impact on the role of national parliaments in the EU. In voting to Leave, the UK electorate rejected the EU-UK deal that included a new “red card” power for national parliaments, which would have in effect given them the collective power to reject new EU legislative proposals.
It is uncertain whether the UK parliament will continue to participate in inter-parliamentary meetings after Brexit. COSAC has asked national parliaments for their opinions regarding whether the UK parliament should continue to be a member of the group after Brexit. Another body, the Inter-Parliamentary Conference for CFSP and CSDP, allows parliamentarians from non-EU European countries such as Norway to attend as observers, and this status would apply to the UK after Brexit. On the other hand, the UK’s representatives would almost certainly be excluded from the new Joint Parliamentary Scrutiny Group that oversees Europol; its current participation rules appear to exclude even representatives from Denmark, an EU member that is outside Europol.
The continuing involvement of the British parliament in inter-parliamentary bodies would be one way to promote political cooperation after the UK loses its seats in the EP. In fact, turning in a more speculative direction, this idea could provide the seed of a larger and more creative solution to the Brexit conundrum.
Brexit is, arguably, a constitutional moment for the EU. The Brexit process itself has had the effect of reaffirming the meaning of EU membership. Yet it is also forces the EU to reckon with and rationalize its relations with the nations on its periphery, which will henceforth include the UK. Yet the Brexit process is being conducted as essentially a bilateral negotiation with little public and parliamentary debate about its effect on the future architecture of Europe.
The Treaty of Lisbon established a role for parliamentarians at key constitutional moments – that is, when revising the treaties. The ordinary revision procedure calls for the creation of a constitutional convention that would include members of national parliaments. Such a convention need not be limited to parliamentarians from EU member states. Indeed, there is a precedent for involving non-EU participants, as members from the then-candidate countries participated in the European Convention of 2002-2003.
Perhaps the time has come for a new European Convention that would include representatives from the British parliament, to debate in a public forum the future relationship between the EU and a post-Brexit UK. It could also include representatives from other non-member states that are closely associated with the EU, such as Norway, Switzerland, and even Canada. What kind of new institutional structures could be devised by such a Convention? A number of theorists and politicians, including Emmanuel Macron, have proposed the creation of a Eurozone parliament, a representative body for a group of states that is smaller than the EU. But we should think about going in the opposite direction, not smaller but bigger. The impending reality of Brexit makes the case for a larger representative body, a Super-parliament, representing the community of nations including not only the states of the EU but also the associated nations on its periphery, of which the UK would be the largest. This could be a creative solution that would keep post-Brexit Britain in the larger European fold.
Ian Cooper is a Research Fellow at the DCU Brexit Institute. He has previously held positions at the European University Institute, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Oslo.
*Please note that this work represents the views of the author and not those of the DCU Brexit Institute.