Paul's Column: all is fragile, including May's grip on power

17 July 2018

‘At last!’ cried the EU27, ‘The British government has finally produced a document setting out what it would like the Brexit agreement with the EU to look like’.  Relieved, rather than pleased, our European allies shake their heads and ask exasperatedly, ‘But why has it taken two years?’

Politicians all over Europe are now ploughing their way through the 100 page White Paper. That’s more than a week to write each page.  There are no guarantees that Brussels (which remember is shorthand for the twenty-seven member states) will accept what the UK government are proposing.  All is fragile, including Mrs May’s grip on power.  Anything could happen.

As the weeks disappear and the UK’s exit in March 2019 hoves into view it should be remembered that it is not just the UK Parliament that will vote on the EU Withdrawal Agreement, the European Parliament will vote too.

It has generally been assumed that this will be a formality: the European Parliament is unlikely to reject a deal that has been agreed by a qualified majority (at least) of the EU27, and by the UK.  To avoid such a risk, the EU negotiators have consulted the European Parliament and the relevant parliamentary committees every step of the way (in stark contrast to the way the UK government has treated the British parliament) to make sure they are on board.

The European Parliament however does have options open to it that should not be over looked.  Apart from saying Yes or No to the deal, it could adopt a resolution beforehand, for instance straight after agreement is announced, asking for clarifications, reassurances, commitments or even a modification of the draft agreement, before it agrees to put the approval of the agreement on its agenda.  Unlike the House of Commons, whose agenda is almost completely in the hands of the government, the European Parliament is largely master of its own agenda and timetable.

The European Parliament could also refer the deal to the European Court of Justice, asking for it to verify the deal’s compatibility with the treaties, including the Charter of Citizens Rights.  As the deal will at the very least end or diminish the rights of some EU citizens, and the European Parliament is elected by citizens, there may be some pressure on it to do so.  Any such case would take months, and the Court would have to say the clock stops ticking on the deadline, pending its consideration of the case.

A further option would be for the EU Parliament simply to wait if there is a ratification crisis in the UK over the final deal.  The European Parliament would not normally intervene in the internal British political debate, but it would not want to be the agent that brings such a debate to a halt, especially in the event of Britain possibly reconsidering its position on Brexit.  If the delay went beyond the 29 March deadline, it would be incumbent on the EU to extend that deadline, rather than force Britain to leave without a deal, as the delay would not be Britain’s fault.

The European Parliament is a “hung” parliament with no overall majority for any single political group.  It is not in hock to a “governing majority” with government whips dictating how members should vote.  It has not hesitated in the past to reject deals that most Member State governments supported (such as the SWIFT banking data agreement with the USA). So taking it for granted that the EU Parliament will automatically back any Brexit deal would be a mistake.

As it happens our last week as MEPs will occur when the Parliament is sitting in Strasbourg in France, rather than in Brussels.  I recently bumped into the Parliament’s head of security, a quietly spoken Irishman.  He informed me that discussions were underway as to what the Parliament would do to mark the departure of the UK.  The lowering of the Union Jack, as occurred when Hong Kong was handed back to China, is one possibility but as the head of security pointed out this is problematic because while most MEPs, including a majority of British MEPs, would stand there solemnly, all the UKIP and more than half the Tory MEPs would be cheering madly.  ‘So we are still negotiating what to do’, he told me.  Let’s hope it doesn’t take another two years to decide!

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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