The European Parliament and Article 50 negotiations – on the sidelines or front and centre?

By Lisa Nolan

Following the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union was invoked for the first time since its creation as part of the Treaty of Lisbon. Article 50(2) states that the role of the European Parliament (EP) shall only be to consent to a withdrawal agreement which has been negotiated without their input. In this blog post, it will be argued that while the role of the EP within Article 50 is limited, in reality, the EP took a much more active role in negotiations and employed several tactics to boost their power and influence.

The Brexit negotiations constituted “uncharted territory” (Bressanelli, Chelotti & Lehmann, 2019:347) for the EP and the European Union as a whole due to it being the inaugural use of Article 50. Article 50 states the EP must “consent” (Treaty on European Union, 2020) to the previously negotiated withdrawal agreement. If taken literally the EP’s role within the Brexit negotiations was very limited, they were required only to accept or reject a withdrawal agreement that had already been negotiated. (Peers & Harvey, 2020:864).

Despite its limited role under the treaties, The EP sought to establish itself as a “distinct, ambitious actor in its own right”. (Meislova, 2020:1) Shortly after the Brexit referendum the EP adopted a resolution stating that the EP “must be fully involved at all stages of the various procedures concerning the withdrawal agreement and any future relationship” (European Parliament, 2016). This resolution was an early indication that the EP would not sit on the sidelines and rubberstamp an agreement which they had no part in negotiating. This unwillingness to stand aside and leave the negotiating to the other EU institutions is characteristic of the EP, especially in its period of “post-Lisbon self-empowerment”, (Meislova, 2020:2) in which the EP has been keen to take any opportunities to “strengthen its institutional role”. (Bressanelli, Chelotti & Lehmann, 2019:348).

The EP used several strategies in order to ensure their opinion was considered during the negotiation process. Firstly, the EP adopted a largely united approach to the Brexit negotiations, ensuring their message to other institutions was clear and concise. Secondly, the EP made it clear that they served as “the ultimate veto power” (Meislova, 2020:1) and that they could, if they wished, refuse to consent to the negotiated deal. Finally, the EP positioned themselves as the “window to the public” (Meislova, 2020:6) portraying themselves as the voice of EU citizens in the negotiation process.

The EP largely operated as a cohesive body in their approach to the negotiation of the withdrawal agreement. The establishment of the Brexit Steering Group (BSG) early in the withdrawal process signalled a unified negotiation stance from the EP. (Patel, 2018:4) The BSG allowed the EP to “engage in the political strategizing of the negotiations” (Bressanelli, Chelotti & Lehmann, 2021:18) The BSG developed a number of resolutions on Brexit in order to highlight the position of the EP on key issues and to sway the negotiations. (Patel, 2018:4) In total, the EP passed six resolutions on Brexit, each passed with a significant majority. (Meislova, 2020:8) It is clear that the EP managed to reach a “substantial degree of long-term consensus” (Meislova, 2020:8), this was crucial in allowing them to present their preferences to other EU institutions and the UK negotiators and exert their influence in the negotiation process clearly and succinctly.

The power to withhold consent to the withdrawal agreement remains, perhaps, the “principal source of parliamentary influence” (Meislova, 2020:1) which the EP enjoyed. The consent of the EP to the withdrawal agreement could not be taken for granted as the EP had shown “willingness to refuse consent to treaties in the past”. (Barnard & Peers, 2020:865) The EP’s position allowed them to serve as a veto player in these negotiations, the final decision remained up to them. The EP used this position to become involved in the withdrawal agreement process as a “quasi-negotiator”. (Bressanelli, Chelotti & Lehmann, 2019:351) It is worth noting that the EP was always “unlikely to block the withdrawal agreement” (Bressanelli, Chelotti & Lehmann, 2019:351) The EP understood that the possibility of a no-deal Brexit would be worse than any withdrawal agreement, even one that the EP was not part of negotiating. (Bressanelli, Chelotti & Lehmann, 2019:351) Despite this, the EP still utilised their veto power in order to exert influence over the other EU institutions and ensure their voice was heard.

Finally, the EP branded themselves as “a prominent public venue for the discussion on the terms of Brexit”. (Meislova, 2020:6) The EP made it clear that they were popularly elected and endeavoured to be seen as “a democratic body” (Meislova, 2019:240). The EP, confident in their democratic mandate,  portrayed themselves as “the true embodiment of the citizens’ will” (Meislova, 2019:240). The EP also focused selectively on issues that were important to EU citizens such as citizen’s rights. (Bressanelli, Chelotti & Lehmann, 2019:357) The EP’s democratic credentials were also utilised by other institutions who “could ‘use’ its democratically elected ally to extract more concessions from the UK” (Bressanelli, Chelotti & Lehmann, 2019:359) The EP were keen to utilise their democratic legitimacy to influence the negotiations and ensure that both the other EU institutions and the UK negotiators were aware of their preferences, particularly in the area of citizen’s right.

It is clear to see that while the role outlined for the European Parliament within Article 50 is limited, the EP took a very active role in the withdrawal negotiations. The EP was clearly not content to stand on the sidelines and instead established themselves as an involved actor with their own preferences and aims for the negotiations. The EP achieved this by firstly, operating as a cohesive, united body; secondly, establishing themselves as a veto player who could refuse to consent to a withdrawal agreement and thirdly, promoting themselves as the democratic, “moral authority on Brexit”. (Meislova, 2019:243).

Bibliography –

  1. Barnard, C. & Peers, S. (2020), European Union law, 3rd edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Bressanelli, E., Chelotti, N. and Lehmann, W., (2019). Negotiating Brexit: the European Parliament between participation and influence. Journal of European Integration41(3), pp.347-363.
  • Bressanelli, E., Chelotti, N. and Lehmann, W., (2021). Managing disintegration: How the European Parliament responded and adapted to Brexit. Politics and governance9(1), pp.16-26.
  • European Parliament, (2016). “European Parliament Resolution of 28 June 2016 on the Decision to Leave the EU Resulting from the UK Referendum (2016/2800(RSP).”
  • Meislova, M.B, (2020). In the spotlight, or behind the scenes? The European Parliament as an actor in Article 50 withdrawal negotiations. Journal of Contemporary European Studies, pp.1-17.
  • Meislova, M.B., (2019). The European Parliament in the Brexit process: Leading role, supporting role or just a small cameo?. In Brexit and democracy (pp. 235-261). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
  • Patel, O., (2018). The EU and the Brexit negotiations: institutions, strategies and objectives. UCL European Institute.
  • Treaty on European Union, Consolidated Version, (2020).
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