By Francis Jacobs, European Parliament (retired) and Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, UCD

The European Parliament has seldom been given much attention in the United Kingdom. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher even preferred to call it an Assembly, as, in her view, it was not a proper Parliament. Over the years, British MEPs have often played a major part in the work of the Parliament and yet their contribution has been little recognised in the UK.

It is ironic, therefore, that the European Parliament is now going to play a significant role in the Brexit process. Although it is opposed to UK ‘cherry picking’, the European Parliament will itself have three bites of the cherry.

MEPs votingFirstly, it is going to have to give its consent to the Article 50 withdrawal agreement that has to be negotiated over the next couple of years. This means that it will have the automatic right to say yes or no to the final agreement, although the individual member states themselves will not have a veto and will only decide by Qualified Majority Vote (QMV) of 20 Member States representing 65% of the EU’s population.

In addition to this, the European Parliament will also have to give its consent both to any transitional agreement, and to any overall framework trade and other agreement that will be negotiated between the UK and the EU.

The European Parliament will not have any direct participation in the Brexit negotiations, but will try to leverage its ultimate veto power and use it to extract information and to achieve influence over the full process. As regards EP participation, representatives of the European Parliament will be invited to preparatory meetings of the European Council and the General Affairs Council, and the President of the European Parliament will be able to address Brexit concerns in his addresses to European leaders at the beginning of European Council meetings. Ways in which information will be transmitted to the Parliament will include briefings by Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, before and after Council meetings, and regular meetings between Commission Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the EP political group leaders and committee chairs, notably with Danuta Hübner, the chair of the EP Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO).

Parliament’s main coordinator on Brexit is Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister who is now the leader of the Liberal (ALDE) Group within the Parliament, and who is expected to attend inter-institutional Brexit meetings along with MEPs, Elmar Brok of the European People’s Party (EPP) and Roberto Gualtieri of the Socialists (S&D). A wider steering group will also include Philippe Lamberts, co-chair of the Green Group, and Gabrielle Zimmer, leader of the left wing GUE Group, thus ensuring involvement of five of the eight EP political groups. The European Conservative and Reformist Group (ECR) chaired by Syed Kamall, a British Conservative Brexiteer, and the two hard line Eurosceptic groups, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD) and the Europe of Nations and Freedoms (ENF Group), co-chaired respectively by Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, will not participate in the steering group. However, the leaders of these groups will be kept in the loop through their membership of the Conference of Presidents (the formal body bringing together the leaders of the EP political groups) which will play a crucial role in monitoring the Brexit negotiations and which will thus include two British MEPs, Kamall and Farage. Relevant sections of their meetings will also be attended by AFCO chair Danuta Hübner.

The Conference of Committee Chairs will have a role as well, and each sectoral committee has been producing assessments of the impact of Brexit on their own areas of responsibility. British MEPs will also have a direct say in this forum, as there are three British Committee chairs (Linda McAvan (S&D), Development; Claude Moraes (S&D), Civil Liberties; and Vicky Ford (ECR), Internal Market). In this context, it is worth pointing out that UK MEPs will be full participants in EP deliberations until the UK actually leaves and that overall British (and specific Scottish, Northern Irish or Welsh) points of view will thus be much better represented in the European Parliament than in other EU institutions, notably in the Council and European Council where Brexit-related decisions will be taken in the absence of the UK.

There are no Irish members on the EP Brexit steering group, the Conference of Presidents or the Conference of Committee Chairs. Mairéad McGuinness is now, however, the senior European Parliament Vice-President and all 11 Irish MEPs are in political groups with an important influence on the EP’s position on Brexit. Irish points of view should thus be well represented in Parliament’s wider discussions on Brexit.

The most visible way in which the EP can contribute to the wider EU debate on Brexit is through the adoption of resolutions. On 5 April 2017, the European Parliament gave its initial reaction to the formal launching of the Article 50 process. It stated that the EP: ‘expects the European Council to take this resolution into account when adopting its guidelines defining the framework for negotiations and setting out the overall positions and principles that the European Union will pursue’ (Paragraph 34). The Parliament also: ‘reserves the right to clarify its position on the European Union-United Kingdom negotiations and, where appropriate to adopt further resolutions, including on specific matters or sectoral issues, in the light of the progress or otherwise of those negotiations’ (Paragraph 33).

The EP has become an increasingly strong institutional player and its veto power in the Brexit process means that anyone not taking it seriously during the negotiations does so at their peril.

14 April 2017