Francis Jacobs (formerly European Parliament staff)
On 27 April 2021 the European Parliament (EP) finally gave its consent on a vote of 660 in favour, 5 against and 32 abstentions both to the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and to the parallel Agreement concerning security procedures for exchanging and protecting classified information. This was a simple yes or no vote. The agreements had been provisionally applied since 1 January 2021 but the EP’s consent was necessary for the agreements to enter into force permanently before their scheduled lapse on 30 April 2021.
The EP also adopted an accompanying resolution giving its more detailed views on “the outcome of EU-UK negotiations” on a vote of 578 in favour, 51 against and 68 abstentions. In both cases there was an exceptionally high turnout, with 697 of the 705 MEPs participating in the vote.
When the EP had previously postponed its vote on 24 March it was in the aftermath of the UK’s unilateral move to extend grace periods under the Northern Ireland Protocol, and was, at least in part, to register a protest against this move. It was always unlikely that this would lead to EP rejection of the agreement, but there was a possibility that it would seek further postponement.
The brinkmanship continued for some time into April, with the EP leadership still not taking any decision on 13 April as to when the EP would finally vote. They did, however, authorize the EP lead committees (Foreign Affairs and International Trade) to take their own final decisions on the agreement, which they did on 15 April, with the combined committees voting by 108 in favour, 1 against and 4 abstentions to approve the agreement. The EP subsequently decided to debate and vote on its position during its plenary session of 26-29 April, with eventual ratification no longer in doubt and with the emphasis within the EP shifting to the content of the accompanying resolution.
The plenary debate itself took up over three and a half hours on the morning of 27 April, with opening statements from the Council Presidency, Ursula von der Leyen and Michel Barnier and then around 80 contributions from individual MEPs, including over half of the Irish MEPs.
The finally adopted resolution on 27 April was an extremely detailed one, consisting of 63 paragraphs, with some of the individual paragraphs being extremely lengthy, such as paragraph 6 on the Northern Ireland Protocol which is 40 lines long.
Paragraph 1 explains why the EP eventually gave its firm endorsement to the TCA :
“Strongly welcomes the conclusion of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (the Agreement) which limits the negative consequences of the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) withdrawal from the European Union (EU) and establishes a cooperation framework which should form the basis of a strong and constructive future partnership, avoiding the most disruptive elements of a ‘no-deal’ scenario, and providing legal certainty for citizens and businesses”.
Paragraph 6 is of key importance. The EP condemns the UK’s unilateral actions and calls on the Commission to “pursue with vigour” the infringement procedures launched by it on 21 March. Indeed a further argument for the approval of the TCA was that it strengthened the “enforcement toolbox for the Withdrawal Agreement”. The same paragraph went into considerable detail on the Protocol:
“recalls that the design of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, and Article 16 thereof, reflects a very delicate and sensitive political balance; insists that proposals or actions which could alter this balance should not be taken lightly or without proper prior consultation by either party;… expresses the need for ongoing and enhanced dialogue between political representatives and civil society, including with Northern Ireland representatives, on all aspects of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the broader Northern Irish peace process”.
Paragraphs 7 to 10 deal with the role of the EP in approving, monitoring and implementing the two agreements. The procedures used on this occasion should not set a precedent and that future “agreements must not be applied provisionally without the consent of Parliament”.
The establishment of a Parliamentary Partnership Assembly for Members of the European and UK Parliaments was strongly supported:
“believes that this Parliamentary Partnership Assembly should be tasked with monitoring the full and proper implementation of the Agreement and making recommendations to the Partnership Council; suggests that its scope should also include the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement,… as well as the right to submit recommendations… and to take joint initiatives to promote close relations”.
Paragraph 9 went on to list 7 specific commitments made by the European Commission as regards the possible EP role in the monitoring and implementation of the agreements, including the need for prior information and involvement in any of the necessary follow-up decisions. It concludes with a request for “the consolidation of these commitments into an Inter-institutional Agreement to be negotiated at the earliest opportunity.”
The rest of the resolution looks at the specific clauses of the TCA on trade, the level playing field, governance, security, foreign affairs and development and on a wide range of other sectoral issues. It thus provides a series of benchmarks for future EP scrutiny of how the agreement is working and where it needs to be further built on in the future.
The EU-UK Agreements will now come into full force but the monitoring and implementation phases are only just beginning. The EP is likely to return on many occasions to these issues. In the words of one of the EP speakers at the concluding press conference: “After the game is before the game!”.
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, was published in 2018.
The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.