The European Parliament has important powers in the process leading to Brexit, and has signalled a clear willingness to use them. As one spokesperson of the European People’s Party put it, the EP is ready to play the role of the “bad cop” in negotiations, and its members will “complain about almost everything”.
The EP has the power to veto the withdrawal agreement by not giving its consent to the final deal. Additionally, the EP has several tools to make its voice heard throughout the negotiations: it can vote on resolutions, organize exchanges of views with the other EU institutions, and issue declarations. Some of its leaders have the charisma to publicly assert the position of Europe’s parliament as the ‘voice’ of the EU citizens.
Thus there’s little interest in asking whether the EP formally matters in the negotiations – it clearly does. What is much more important to ask is whether the EP has the political clout to use its powers and act – paraphrasing Theresa May – as a ‘bloody difficult institution’.
In recent history, the EP has not shied away from vetoing international agreement like SWIFT, on data transfer with the US, or the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). Furthermore, as a co-legislator the EP is now leaving its mark on about 90 percent of EU laws. Here again, it has a strong record of opposing the Council and, occasionally, turning legislation down.
Yet, the role of the EP in the Brexit process should not be overstated. On the one hand, it is perfectly reasonable for it to lay down very red ‘red lines’ for the negotiations, signalling that it is ready to play its part both to the other actors and to public opinion. On the other hand, if an agreement between the UK and the EU is eventually found, it is hard to imagine how the EP could reject it. There are several good reasons why Europe’s parliament is unlikely to be the “bad cop” to the very end of the negotiations.
First, power has made the EP more responsible. Long gone are the days when it was just a talking shop, and it had to shout to get noticed. Nowadays, the EP takes more extreme positions on non-legislative documents. However, when it comes to law-making, it is generally cooperative: legislative negotiations with the Council can be tough, but it is telling that more than 80 percent of the EU-laws are agreed at first reading.
Second, the EP tends to be particularly cooperative when the stakes for the member states and the EU are high, or when money is under discussion. Recent academic research has shown that, after the Treaty of Lisbon and its legislative empowerment, the EP has moderated its liberal stance on migration policy, and has accepted the key desiderata of the member states. Similarly, the EP has not turned the table around on the reform of economic governance. On these issues, the red lines of the member states were much more red than those of the EP: only the former were not negotiable.
Third, the EP will both try to be fully engaged in the negotiations and advance its preferences by arguing that it is the only EU institution directly representing the EU citizens. If the parliament’s voice is not fully listened to, the EU democratic standards will be undermined. Yet, the claim of the EP to be the ‘voice of the EU citizens’ has been weakened by its declining support. Most importantly, in a more politicized EU, the European Council and the national leaders have successfully defended the legitimacy of their actions when key decisions were at stake.
Fourth, the EP may not bite as much as it promises because, if the EU and the UK finally reach an agreement, MEPs from governing parties will be under tremendous pressure from their bosses, sitting in the Council, to back it – with the EP elections coming up.
Finally, unless the negotiations break down the text that the EP will be asked to vote on will reflect a compromise between the parties. If the key conditions of the EP are to some extent met, any agreement – for instance, on the status of EU citizens living in the UK – is likely to be better than the alternative option – which may be their deportation. Clearly, voting such an agreement down for a matter of principle will not make the EP more popular among Europeans.
The EP itself is probably aware that it has a better chance of impacting the Brexit negotiations if it adopts a more pragmatic approach. After the appointment of Guy Verhofstadt as its ‘coordinator’ on Brexit, it has placed the federalist chairman of the Liberal Democratic group under tighter control.
Thus, Verhofstadt will be accompanied to the sherpa meetings ahead of the talks between the member states by two other veteran MEPs, the German Elmar Brok (of the European People’s Party) and the Italian Roberto Gualtieri (of the Socialists and Democrats). With the closer involvement of the two major parties, the EP signals that it is now ready to engage pragmatically in the negotiations.
All in all, it seems reasonable expect that the EP won’t derail Brexit. Its full participation in the negotiation process is, quite paradoxically, more likely to make the negotiations successful. For the negotiators, the implication is clear: the involvement of the EP is not just a mere act of institutional courtesy, because leaving it out may have very negative consequences for the passage of the Brexit agreement.