The parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit: what role for European and national parliaments and for EU citizens?
By Diane Fromage and Thomas Christiansen
As the negotiations between the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) about the UK’s upcoming withdrawal from the EU are progressing, the parliamentary scrutiny and citizens’ participation in this process is becoming an important issue. In order to address this question, CERiM recently hosted a workshop, with financial support from the Universiteitsfonds Limburg (SWOL) at the UM Campus Brussels on 8 and 9 March. The workshop brought together scholars from law and political science from across Europe, and involved practitioners as discussants and attendees while also welcoming the participation of students. All this made for informed, lively discussions throughout the workshop, and the organisers are now working on a book publication to bring the findings and insights from the research into this topic to the widest audience possible.
Contributions to the workshop examined four main topics: Westminster’s participation in the Brexit procedure; the involvement of the European Parliament; the role of national and regional parliaments in the EU-27, and the facilitation of citizens’ participation in the process.
As is well-known, tensions have existed between the UK government and Westminster among other things because, as evidenced by the presentations held on 8 March, the Brexit referendum can be seen as questioning the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, one of the key elements of British democracy. Additionally, as discussed during the debates, the situation in which the UK is going to be during the transition period is almost in contradiction with the idea that Brexit would allow the UK to regain (lost) control since it would continue to be bound by EU norms without having a right to vote during the 21 months of this period. Finally, the presentations also demonstrated how Parliament’s involvement has gradually developed as the negotiation process started.
Paper givers focusing on the European Parliament (EP) showed how the EP is self-conscious of its role and its power: it will have to agree to the ‘divorce agreement’. At the same time, they also highlighted the difficult position in which the EP finds itself since it is hard to imagine that it would reject an agreement on which both the European Commission, the UK and the remaining member states had been able to agree upon. Discussions implied however that this may not hold true of the agreement – to be agreed at a later stage – that will define the future EU-UK relationship. One of the presentations also zoomed in specifically on the consequences of Brexit for (European) parliamentary diplomacy in the Middle East. The potential for interparliamentary cooperation between national parliaments and the EP was highlighted too.
Interestingly, the contributions also showed how the national parliaments of the EU-27 Member States have been scrutinizing Brexit, although with a varying intensity. Whereas the EP has a right of veto on the ‘divorce agreement’, national parliaments will not have the same authority, given that the Council will have to agree to it by qualified majority. By contrast, since the future agreement between the EU and the UK will likely be a mixed agreement, their consent will have to be sought at that later stage. This certainly justifies some national parliaments’ interest in the current negotiations, but other factors such as the economic impact of Brexit on particular member states may account for this too. The Belgian case is particularly illustrative in this regard as regional parliamentary interest varies across regions for the latter reason. The potential for interparliamentary cooperation among national parliaments was also debated.
In the EU, there are provisions not only for representative democracy, but also for participatory democracy. Thus, two contributions also examined the question of citizens’ participation in the Brexit process. Here, transparency is regarded as a prerequisite to any form of citizens’ participation, and it was shown that, thus far, standards of disclosure have been unprecedently high. Citizens’ involvement was additionally found to take place both bottom-up by means of Citizens’ initiative, and top-down in the form of consultations and dialogues. In this regard too, improvements were found to have occurred as the Commission showed willingness to make the Citizens’ initiative a more effective tool and as it also reached out to citizens. However, certain challenges still exist, as they also do for regional, national and European parliaments’ scrutiny of Brexit.
In conclusion, the contributions to the workshop emphasized the relevance of parliamentary scrutiny and citizen participation in the Brexit process, and engendered fruitful discussions about both the opportunities and the limitations of these. Academically, this workshop laid the foundations for a forthcoming book on Brexit and Democracy which will explore these issues in greater depth.