The European Parliament (EP) has been quite active on Brexit in recent weeks. At the end of January, it ratified the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) which gave final approval for the UK’s exit from the EU. A few weeks later, on 12 of February, it adopted a resolution concerning the proposed mandate for negotiations for a new EU-UK trade deal.
In this resolution, which was passed with overwhelming majority (543 versus 39 votes, and 69 abstentions), the EP argued that an ambitious, broad and deep economic partnership is desirable but that it will “require a robust and comprehensive framework for competition and state aid control that prevents undue distortion of trade and competition”.
MEPs requested that the UK remain aligned to old and new EU rules in fields such as environment, competition or labour standards. The rationale behind is that strong economic links will go hand in hand with a level playing field and avert a ‘race to the bottom’.
Although these demands have been considered particularly tough in the UK context, this is nothing new: for instance, the EP raised very similar issues in its March 2018 resolution, and member states have similarly warned that an ambitious trade agreement would require substantial regulatory alignment of the UK to EU standards.
The resolution of 12 of February needs to be seen in context of the formulation of the EU’s position on the future trade negotiations. The European Commission proposed draft negotiating directives on 3 February – which have largely been adopted by the Council of Ministers this week. The EP resolution is therefore an attempt to influence the content of the mandate the European Commission will have when negotiations with the UK start.
The EP has also already adapted internally to cope with the new trade negotiations with the UK. The Conference of Presidents decided a few weeks before Brexit to retain political responsibility and oversight of the subsequent negotiations. For implementation and scrutiny purposes, a ‘UK Coordination Group’ was set up.
The Group consists of the Chairs of the relevant committees, the two rapporteurs on trade and foreign affairs and one representative from each political group. The Chair of the Conference of Committee Chairs (who is also the Chair of the Constitutional Affairs Committee) is also part of the group. Other committee chairs and rapporteurs will be invited on an ad hoc basis. The UK Coordination Group may also be given the mandate to watch over the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.
What role is the EP going to play in the upcoming negotiations?
While the EP had to give its consent to the final Withdrawal Agreement, Article 50 did not explicitly give it any formal role during the actual negotiations. However, as we have argued, the EP did manage to make sure it was regularly and thoroughly informed by the Commission, and participated in the key decisions throughout the process – becoming a quasi-negotiator.
We expect this significant involvement of the EP to continue also in the negotiations over a new EU-UK trade agreement. Although the Commission thinks that the substantive legal basis for the conclusion of the new partnership can only be determined at the end of the negotiations, the EP’s involvement during the negotiations is guaranteed by the international agreement provisions of the EU treaties, and by the greater informal powers the EP has managed to carve out for itself in the last decade.
Most likely, the final trade agreement will require the EP’s consent and possibly a unanimous decision by the Council. Moreover, as recent events have shown, it is quite probable that the new agreement will include provisions that require also the consent of national and/or regional parliaments.
Meanwhile, we can see at least two notable differences between the new and the old Brexit negotiations. First, the EP was very unlikely to vote against a WA as it would have preferred almost any type of deal to a no-deal scenario. However, the new situation is a bit different. Although the EP still prefers having a deal – especially one which would keep the UK aligned to EU regulatory norms – the costs of rejecting an agreement for the EP are now certainly lower than with the WA.
Second, in the previous negotiations, the positions of the EP were very close to those of the other EU institutions. After all, they all had an interest in avoiding a border in Northern Ireland, in settling the divorce bill, and in obtaining as much protection for citizens’ rights as possible.
This unity among EU institutions is also likely to continue in the next negotiating phase. Again, their interests generally align: most member states and the EU institutions will not want to grant the UK good trading terms and at the same time allow British companies to gain a regulatory advantage.
Yet, if an EU/UK deal materialises – which at the moment does not seem easy, given the starting points of the two parties – greater compromises will have to be made this time by the EU. Importantly, these are not only compromises with the UK, but also within the EU – between sectors, industries and policy areas.
As a result, there will be some more differences among member states – differences which potentially will also involve the EP and its specific preferences (and those of its political groups, too). In this vein, there is a further difficulty on the EU’s side, as negotiations on the UK-EU partnership will run almost in parallel with those on the EU’s next Multi-annual Financial Framework.
The EP has some experience in using its strong powers in the budgetary field to achieve policy objectives in other areas. It might be tempted to go this way if inter-institutional complications should arise.
Will the EP be the EU’s bad cop, then, in the coming negotiations? On the substance, only marginally so. Member states might be a bit more pragmatic than the EP if a deal becomes, at a certain point, achievable. But the basic positions of EU actors appear quite similar, at the moment.
In addition, MEPs would hardly wish to be seen to be standing in the way of such a significant and complex deal. The EP might, however, show a tougher face in the negotiations. There might be here some explicit or implicit strategic interplay between the Commission and the EP – with the EP appearing more intransigent and the Commission using this for negotiating purposes.
By Dr Nicola Chelotti, Lecturer in Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughborough University, and Dr Wilhelm Lehmann, Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence.