Scrutinizing Brexit in Europe’s Parliaments
Katharina Meissner (Institute for European Integration Research, Vienna)
In a recent blog post, Ian Cooper discussed the consequences of Brexit on inter-parliamentary relations in the EU. Yet, we know little about the involvement of national parliaments in the actual Brexit talks. In fact, the intensity of parliamentary scrutiny activities varies across EU member states. Parliaments are much more active in those countries that are likely to be hit hardest by Brexit, such as Ireland. Still, their engagement in the negotiations means good news for the European Commission.
Comparing the Austrian and German Parliaments
Only the UK’s parliament and the European Parliament are directly involved in the Brexit talks. But national parliaments have lately become more assertive in the EU’s international negotiations. One example is the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) that was recently concluded between Canada and the EU. The agreement’s high levels of politicization turned national parliaments into active scrutinizers. In particular, Austrian and German parliamentarians used the full range of legislative instruments. Do we observe similar levels of engagement in the current Brexit talks? If yes, is this contingent on the saliency of Brexit in these two countries?
A comparison of the Austrian and German parliaments in the context of Brexit is useful. Both the Austrian Nationalrat and the German Bundestag are very strong on EU affairs. They get full access to all EU documents. This also applies to Brexit and its negotiation documents. Likewise, both parliaments rely on experienced EU committees. These are in charge of monitoring the talks on the UK’s withdrawal.
At the same time, the saliency of Brexit differs in Austria and Germany. Austria will likely not suffer much. The Standard & Poors Brexit Sensitivity Index ranks the country as little vulnerable to Brexit. Germany, by contrast, will be strongly exposed to the UK’s withdrawal. Brexit will affect the German services and finances sectors. The UK is Germany’s second largest trading partner and so the country will also lose out on exports.
Scrutinizing Brexit in Berlin and Vienna
Compared to Austria, Germany’s Bundestag is much more active in Brexit affairs. The negotiations were twice as often on the agenda of the EU committee in Germany than in Austria. The same holds true for legislative-executive meetings on Brexit with representatives of national governments. At the same time, both parliaments were in regular contact with executives from the EU and the UK. They organized hearings with chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his deputy Sabine Weyand. Theresa May also came to answer parliamentary questions. And so did the UK’s chief negotiator at that time, David Davis.
On top of that, German parliamentarians developed a fully-fledged structure of informal contacts to scrutinize the Brexit talks. These contacts of the Bundestag reach out to executives of the EU, UK, and Germany. The conservative parliamentary group CDU/CSU, for example, established an internal ‘taskforce Brexit’. The purpose of this taskforce is to maintain frequent informal meetings and lunches with key figures. In that way, the CDU/CSU secured privileged contacts to negotiation teams of both sides, the EU and the UK. These channels help parliamentarians to get first-hand information on Brexit.
Putting their Weight behind Michel Barnier
These informal contacts would arguably provide a solid basis for influence on the final Brexit deal. Yet, the German Bundestag prefers not to ratify the withdrawal agreement. (Although it insists on ratification of a possible future EU-UK agreement.) Thus, Germany’s Bundestag lobbies the Commission for insisting on a limited transition period. Also, the parliament stands firm that any withdrawal agreement must not include budgetary implications. These two items would require parliamentary approval in Germany.
The lack of enthusiasm for parliamentary ratification in Germany seems ironic. This is even more so in light of the Bundestag’s intensive scrutiny of Brexit. However, parliamentarians fear that the requirement of the approval of national parliaments could undermine the unity of the EU27. Preserving the EU’s unity appears to be a top priority for decision-makers in Berlin. And so it does in Brussels and in Vienna. Hence, national parliamentarians put their weight behind Michel Barnier. They support and share his negotiation position. This is to secure three overarching goals, which are (1) to ensure the integrity of the single market, (2) to secure EU citizens’ rights in the UK, and (3) to solve the issue of the Irish border.
Future agreement, future challenge
The strong support by national parliaments for Michel Barnier comes as good news. Any national interest in the current Brexit negotiations may create a rift in the EU27. This would severely hurt the EU’s unity when facing one of its most pressing political problems.
Having said this, the next challenge of negotiating a future EU-UK deal – assuming it will be necessary – is yet to come. National parliaments are already now getting ready for these negotiations which will likely be the EU’s most complex ones to date. Parliamentarians will want to shape future EU-UK relations. To this end, they will make use of contacts and channels they have been establishing over the past months in the current Brexit talks.
Katharina Meissner is assistant professor at the Institute for European Integration Research (EIF) at the University of Vienna, Austria. Her research focuses on the EU’s trade policy, the role of inter-regionalism, and the involvement of parliaments in this area of EU external relations.