The European Parliament was initially viewed as having a fairly limited part to play in the Brexit negotiations. However, as Carlos Closa writes, the Parliament has effectively crafted a central role for itself in the process. This has been achieved by combining the unconcealed brandishing of its veto threat with the promotion of strong internal unity and supporting the Commission’s role as central negotiator.

Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) limits the role of the European Parliament (EP) to assent to the withdrawal agreement between a withdrawing state and the European Union. From this very plain and apparently unambiguous description, the EP has positioned itself centrally in the Brexit negotiations and has created procedural mechanisms for its involvement, allowing it to set clear limits to the substantive content of the withdrawal agreement. Given the limited powers granted to it by the original treaty, how has the EP been able to expand its role under Article 50?

Like almost any other treaty provision, Article 50 contains a significant degree of ambiguity that permits actors to interpret and redefine the rules of the game within the existing provisions. Previous research has shown that the EP behaves as a ‘power-maximiser’ and has exploited treaty ambiguities to reinterpret rules to its own advantage. This has happened before in the areas of treaty-making and trade agreements. On these precedents, the EP has followed the same pattern of maximising power on a procedure that the EU has never applied before and which was largely unregulated.

The EP moved very quickly in the early stages of the Brexit process, opportunistically taking charge of the situation to interpret rules before any other EU institution did. To accomplish this, the EP has exploited the significant leverage offered by the requirement for its consent to the final withdrawal agreement, repeatedly signalling its willingness to transform the vote into a veto of both the agreement and the scope of its own procedural role in the negotiations. The EP has maximised the credibility of its veto threat by actively seeking to unite political groups to promote and present a single and unified stance. For this, EP actors in the withdrawal process have used institutional procedures to marginalise Eurosceptics. The EP’s empowerment has also relied on its skilful exploitation of its synergetic relationship with the European Commission by fully endorsing the latter’s role as negotiator.

Credit: CC BY 4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP

The veto threat appeared immediately in the repertoire of the EP’s instruments. The EP resolution on the outcome of the UK referendum in June 2016 warned that it should be fully involved in all stages of all procedures concerning both the withdrawal agreement and any future relationship. It linked this demand with an explicit warning on the use of its veto. The EP ritually repeated its threat to veto the withdrawal agreement if its demands were not met.

The EP’s internal consensus reinforced the credibility of the veto threat. Even groups with usually deep reservations about mainstream EU policies – such as the GUE – adhered to the consensus. Conceding to the smaller groups’ demands proved instrumental to including them in the consensus. For this, institutional adaptation was essential. The EP created an ad hoc Brexit Steering Group (BSG). The BSG comprised of six members representing the European People’s Party (EPP), the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens-EFA), the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL) and the Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Constitutional Affairs. The BSG could successfully bypass the standing structure of EP committees and created the basis for displaying a strong political consensus on Brexit.

The neutralisation of Eurosceptics happened mainly by preventing their access to EP Brexit-related decision-making organs. For this, the BSG’s membership excluded any representative from groups which did not support the EP’s resolutions on Brexit: the European Conservatives and Reformists (ERC) (which included the UK Conservatives and their allies), the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) (including UKIP) and Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF). In part, this merely reflected the Eurosceptics’ typical self-exclusion from parliamentary work. However, additional factors, such as their disruptive attitudes and a general distrust of Eurosceptics combined to freeze them out, since they were perceived as potentially detrimental to the EU’s position and interests.

Finally, the EP liaised intensively with the Commission. Thus, the Parliament decisively lobbied for the Commission to be the main negotiator in Brexit. Since Article 50 does not explicitly refer to the Commission, its role as negotiator was not a foregone conclusion. The Commission Task Force rewarded the EP’s support by involving it deeply in the process and assigning the Parliament a role almost equal to the Council in negotiations. Barnier’s own personality and institutional knowledge must also be credited for this partnership. Naturally, the EP’s involvement served to foster inter-institutional unity and, hence, to present a strong image of the EU’s internal unity.

In summary, the EP has emerged reinforced from the Brexit negotiations. For the future, we could expect that, if Brexit happens, the EP will likely anticipate its approach to the ‘future relations agreement’ foreseen in the Article 50 provisions. Even if this does not completely fit within the scope of Article 218, the combined acquis on the EP’s role under trade negotiations and withdrawal agreement negotiations has created a natural position for the EP that other EU institutions and member states cannot easily dissolve. On the other hand, a logical expectation following the EP’s extended role resulting from the expansive interpretation of Article 50 is that the EP itself will seek formally to consolidate this enlarged role whenever fresh treaty reform occurs.

For more information, see the author’s accompanying paper in the Journal of European Public Policy

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Carlos Closa – IPP / EUI
Carlos Closa is a Professor at the Instituto de Políticas y Bienes Públicos (IPP), CSIC and faculty member of the School for Transnational Governance, STG at the European University Institute (EUI).

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