Parliament should have a greater role in Brexit negotiations.

Parliament should have a greater role in Brexit negotiations.

Brexit Day

Today is an important day in the Brexit process as Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has announced two significant steps towards Britain’s exit from the European Union. These announcements come as a response to mounting pressure from hardline Brexiteers, who are advocating for a speedy and complete break from the EU.

Firstly, May plans to include a Great Repeal Act in next year’s Queen’s Speech. This act will revoke the 1972 European Communities Act (ECA), which initially took Britain into the European club. The ECA is the legislation that channels European laws onto British statute books. Its repeal will remove the legal framework that binds the UK to EU regulations.

Secondly, May intends to trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017. Article 50 is the two-year process by which a member state negotiates its exit terms with the EU. This timing is earlier than some had anticipated, as it precedes the French and German elections in May and September respectively. It also occurs before the next Queen’s Speech. By doing so, May hopes to show that the Brexit process is finally gaining momentum.

However, the sequence of these two milestones is somewhat curious and reveals a broader truth about the upcoming negotiations. It would seem more natural for Parliament to first deliberate and vote on repealing the ECA before the government triggers Article 50. After all, leaving the EU is contradictory to codifying Britain’s membership through the ECA. The Brexit referendum result left many important questions unanswered, such as the manner in which Britain will leave the EU and the type of new relationship it should aspire to.

Parliament should have the opportunity to discuss and decide on the next steps before negotiations commence, rather than after. The triggering of Article 50 requires a country to issue notification “in accordance with its constitutional requirements.” Therefore, isn’t parliamentary approval an essential element of Britain’s constitutional order?

The objective of involving MPs is not to block Brexit. While the referendum itself was not legally binding, overturning its result without a dramatic shift in public opinion would be a political travesty. The aim is to engage MPs, who are elected to hold the government accountable, in a process that will shape not only Britain’s relations with the wider world but also the country’s economy and society for the foreseeable future.

Different approaches to Brexit will lay the foundations for different national futures – open or closed, free-market or protectionist, individualist or paternalist. If MPs have time to discuss the Great British Bake-Off, a televised baking contest, surely they have time to weigh in on Brexit. It is worth noting that even the constitution committee of the House of Lords ruled last week that it would be “constitutionally inappropriate” to trigger Article 50 without a parliamentary vote. However, the legal challenges being mounted in support of parliamentary involvement are not expected to succeed.

This exclusion of Parliament from the early stages of the Brexit process raises concerns. Repealing the ECA will grant ministers significant discretionary power to amend European laws through statutory instruments. Although Britain may not initially wish to alter such laws, they often make references to EU institutions and protocols, requiring rewriting to make sense. This deluge of ambiguities will offer ministers the opportunity to water down or manipulate legislation they do not favor. There are already indications of a lack of concern for detail, demonstrated by proposals to leave the “lacuna in our regulatory landscape” undescribed, as Bernard Jenkin, one of the authors of the demands by the hardline Brexiteers, has suggested.

Simultaneously, Britain will be negotiating a new settlement, potentially including an interim arrangement post-Brexit. These negotiations will raise numerous questions about the country’s future, including ongoing membership of the single market, free-trade deals, curbing free movement, and formal trade talks with countries outside the EU. This extensive scrutiny will test Parliament’s capacity and provide further opportunities for lobbyists and lawyers to influence the process.

At this crucial early stage, MPs are being sidelined, although much of what is to come will depend on May’s initial negotiating strategy. While May has stated that Parliament will “have its say” by voting on the Great Repeal Act, her comments do little to suggest a more substantive role for MPs as negotiations progress. Similarly, David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, has cautioned against expecting total transparency.

Ironically, Brexit was portrayed to British voters as a means of regaining parliamentary sovereignty from an undemocratic Brussels. However, the European Parliament is likely to play a more active role in the negotiations than Westminster. Despite the Council leading the talks in practice, MEPs are entitled to extensive briefing throughout the process. They have already appointed Guy Verhofstadt as their point of contact for the talks and possess a veto on the final deal. Their influence over the European institutions’ negotiating posture is substantial. This stands in stark contrast to British MPs, who have much less political freedom of maneuver and collective knowledge and experience. The disarray within the opposition Labour Party and the secessionist orientation of the Scottish National Party further exacerbate this predicament.

All of this is not merely disappointing; it is disconcerting. It signals the risk of centralizing control over a process that will shape Britain for generations to come. While May is considered competent and level-headed, her time at the Home Office suggests a tendency towards control and resistance to scrutiny. To ensure accountability and transparency, MPs must push back against this. Although they may have lost the battle for a vote on triggering Article 50, they should demand comprehensive briefings and opportunities for scrutiny beyond the superficiality of regular ministerial questions. The new Brexit select committee should be granted privileged access to sensitive information about the negotiations, akin to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s access to information about Britain’s spies.

Following Brexit Day, the Tory conference will turn its focus to social reform. While it is important for May to address various domestic issues, the impact of social reforms comes and goes. Brexit, however, is permanent and far-reaching. MPs must recognize this distinction and assert themselves accordingly, for the sake of Mrs. May and the future of Britain.