15 December 2016

In a letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, European Parliament President Martin Schultz warned against marginalising the Parliament in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, indicating that, if it felt relegated, it would “draw up its own detailed arrangements governing its interaction [with the UK in exit negotiations].” He added that failure to properly involve the Parliament would result in “the very hardest of Brexits […] to the detriment of everybody.” This departure from Europe’s unified messaging has caught the attention of the UK press, for whom it signals disunity among the EU institutions. What’s more, it comes ahead of today’s summit of EU heads of state and government, during which the EU-27 are set to discuss their Brexit negotiation strategy over dinner.

While the display of inter-institutional tension is striking, it will have little effect on the EU’s negotiating framework: the European Parliament remains unlikely to take centre-stage. This seems in little doubt, particularly after a leaked report of European Council’s draft conclusions mentioned the role of the European Parliament in square brackets (meaning that particular sentence is not certain to make the cut in the final version of the document):

As we have noted before, Britain’s exit negotiations will be a political discussion with EU national governments in the driving seat. In fact, the relative influence of the EU institutions are best summarised by a quick look at how Article 50 will work in practice.


What happens once Britain triggers Article 50?

Once Britain has notified the EU of its decision to leave, the European Council of EU-27 leaders will set out their broad objectives for talks with the UK. The Council’s taskforce, run by Belgian diplomat Didier Seeuws, will lead on this. Once finalised, these negotiation guidelines will act as a steer for the European Commission, who will draw on its own technical and legal expertise to draft a mandate authorising the opening of negotiations. This mandate will then have to be adopted by the Council of Ministers by qualified majority before negotiations with Britain can kick off. Going forward, the bulk of discussions will be conducted by the European Commission on behalf of the EU, but it will be constrained by the European Council’s mandate, and is likely to be in frequent contact with them. So talk of the Commission’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier driving discussions should be put aside. The 27 national governments are in charge of defining the EU strategy, and, as this piece in the Telegraph outlines, Barnier’s comments on this matter are currently inconsistent with the views of some Member States.


So what part will the Parliament play?

The European Parliament will have no formal role in setting the EU-27 agenda or deciding the substance of the negotiations. It will no doubt be kept informed of the EU’s progress, and might be associated to the talks, but its formal role under the EU Treaties is restricted to approving or rejecting the final agreement by simple majority – meaning that MEPs are not allowed to suggest amendments. This veto power is far from insignificant, as it gives the Parliament the ability to block an agreement at a late stage in the game – although we believe MEPs would think twice before single-handedly scuppering a deal that has been given the green light by 28 heads of state and government. So while Guy Vehofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator, will likely be in close contact with other EU institutions to ensure that Parliament’s wishes are filtered through to Brexit talks, its influence will be at best indirect until an agreement has been reached.