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

The European Parliament has now adopted its initial position on Brexit. The debate took up most of the morning of 5 April 2017 with 73 MEPs taking part as well as European Commission President, Jean Claude Juncker, Chief Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the Maltese Presidency Minister. 93% of the eligible MEPs voted on the main resolution, which was adopted by 516 to 133 with 50 abstentions.

EP Strasbourg PlenaryThe main resolution had been prepared by Chief European Parliament Brexit Negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, and other steering group members, and was signed by the leaders of four political groups, the European People’s Party (EPP), Socialists (S&D), Liberals (ALDE) and Green/European Free Alliance Groups. A separate resolution had been tabled by the left wing GUE Group. Influenced by Sinn Féin members of the group, the resolution included a heavy emphasis on Ireland. Before the plenary vote however, GUE group leader, Gabrielle Zimmer from Germany, also co-signed the main resolution.

Of the three groups that did not support the main motion, two presented completely separate resolutions. The resolution by the European Conservative and Reformist Group (ECR) reflected many UK government concerns, while the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group (EFDD) resolution was more overtly Eurosceptic. This group also tabled a considerable number of amendments to the main motion. The second strongly Eurosceptic group, the Europe of Nations and Freedoms (ENF), did not produce a resolution or table amendments.

The final vote showed the complex interplay between political group discipline and individual national constraints. The EPP was almost unanimous (206 in favour and one abstention), as were the Socialists (173 in favour and one abstention), Liberals (61 in favour and three abstentions) and the Greens (44 in favour, two against and two abstentions). The final group to co-sign the main motion, the left wing GUE, was more divided, with 27 in favour, nine against and 12 abstentions.

Of the groups opposing the main motion, Marine Le Pen’s ENF group was the least divided, with 34 voting against and only two abstaining, whereas Nigel Farage’s EFDD group had 21 against (mainly UKIP) and 17 abstentions (mainly the Italian 5 Star MEPs). Finally, the British Conservative-led ECR group had 54 against, three in favour and 11 abstentions, the latter mainly the less Eurosceptic Tories.

UK MEPs were very active in the parliamentary debate , with 17 of them speaking, including all three from Northern Ireland. 63 of the UK’s 73 MEPs took part in the final vote, of which 23 were in favour (Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MEPs), 33 against (UKIP and most Tories) and seven abstained (one Plaid Cymru but also six Tories). In contrast, all 10 Irish members who voted supported the main resolution.

The adopted resolution sets out a series of key principles that the EP wants to see respected in the negotiations. These include:

  • No UK negotiations on possible trade deals with third countries before its formal withdrawal from the EU;
  • No bilateral agreements between the UK and individual EU countries on such matters as privileged access for UK financial services;
  • The withdrawal agreement should deal with the legal status of EU citizens in the UK and of UK citizens in the EU, should provide for settlement of financial obligations between the UK and the EU, and should provide for designation of the European Court of Justice as the competent authority for the interpretation and enforcement of the withdrawal agreement.

The resolution includes an important phrase on the sequencing of the negotiations, namely that:

should substantial progress be made towards a withdrawal agreement then talks could start on possible transitional arrangements on the basis of the intended framework for the UK’s future relationship with the European Union.

Any such transitional arrangements should, however, not exceed three years in duration.

The resolution also outlines some of the key conditions for the longer-term relationship, in particular that it would not ‘involve any trade-off between internal and external security, including defence cooperation on the one hand and the future economic relationship on the other hand.’ Moreover, the UK should not be able to undercut human rights nor ‘the EU’s legislation and policies in, among others, the fields of the environment, climate change, the fight against tax evasion and avoidance, fair competition, trade and social rights, especially safeguards against social dumping’.

A number of other issues are also covered, including the need to re-locate the European Banking Authority and the European Medicines Agency; to immediately tackle the longer-term EU budget; to mitigate the loss of EU citizenship for those UK citizens who do not want to lose such rights; and to put forward proposals for the new composition of the European Parliament post-Brexit, for which the EP has the formal right of initiative. It is conceivable that Ireland may be one of the beneficiaries of this process and gain one or more EP seats.

An important aspect of the resolution is its explicit concern with the specific situation of Ireland:

Whereas the European Parliament is especially concerned at the consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union for Northern Ireland, and its future relations with Ireland, whereas in that respect it is crucial to safeguard peace and therefore to preserve the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, recalling that it was brokered with the active participation of the Union … Recognises that the unique position of and the special circumstances confronting the island of Ireland must be addressed in the withdrawal agreement … [and] insists on the absolute need to ensure continuity and stability of the Northern Ireland peace process and to do everything possible to avoid a hardening of the border.

This is strong language and was reinforced by speakers during the debate, some of whom argued that Ireland was part of the European family and that the Irish situation was thus a matter of common European concern.

The Parliament’s resolution is non-binding, but provides a strong back-up to Commission and Council negotiating guidelines and constitutes an important democratic contribution to the debate.

14 April 2017