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How meaningful could a meaningful Brexit vote be?

Oliver Ilott argues that a meaningful vote on a final Brexit deal would be less meaningful than it first appears, but might still be a good idea.

Theresa May has promised Parliament a “take or leave it” vote in which MPs can choose between leaving the EU with the deal that she has negotiated, or leaving without a deal at all. Last night the Lords passed an amendment to the Article 50 bill to give Parliament a more meaningful vote, one in which they could send the Prime Minister back to the negotiating table if they did not like the deal on offer.

The amendment is now in ping pong; the Commons will now have to decide whether to accept the amendment next week.

A “meaningful vote” might be less meaningful than it appears.

This is for three reasons, all of which relate to the fact that the UK does not have the option to walk away from talks with the EU while leaving the status quo intact:

1. It is not in the UK’s gift to extend negotiations.

Article 50 states that there is a two-year negotiating window, which means Parliament cannot reject bad deals and send Theresa May back to the negotiating table indefinitely. After two years the negotiating window ends and, even if they are armed with the Lords amendment, in reality parliamentarians would face a “take it or leave it” vote.

2. The “take it or leave it” vote might also be the only vote that Parliament is offered.

The two-year negotiating window is already a very tight deadline and given the amount of time it will take to ratify the EU’s position, there might only be 12-18 months of actual negotiation. In that scenario, a second attempt at a deal before the negotiating window is up seems unlikely.

3. Even if Theresa May is sent back to the negotiating table, she might find that the EU is very sluggish in coming up with a new version of the deal.

The EU has many constraints on its ability to negotiate. Its sign-off process is tortuous, involving the European Council, the European Parliament and, for some deals, 27 national parliaments and 11 regional assemblies. Historically, the EU has found it difficult to find a position that will appease all of these groups. When it does find that position, its room for manoeuvre is limited. The EU is a negotiating partner with the turning circle of a cruise ship – which is one of the reasons why the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada took five years to negotiate.

But the Lords amendment might still be a good idea.

If a deal can be thrashed out in good time, then Parliament’s ability to reject it could increase the Prime Minister’s bargaining power (even though No10 has been briefing that it would have the opposite impact). As we’ve previously explained, international negotiations suggest that negotiators who are domestically constrained have greater bargaining power, since their scope for concession is reduced. Any negotiator who finds it harder to make concessions is in a stronger position.  

Parliament could well delay or derail these bills as an indirect way of exercising their influence, if it does not feel like it is being heard. The Government needs Parliament to approve numerous pieces of Brexit legislation in the next two years. In total, there may be eight to 15 pieces of legislation that need parliamentary approval, including the Great Repeal Bill, a new immigration bill and an international trade bill. Giving parliamentarians a more meaningful vote on the Brexit deal decreases the risk of this type of legislative collateral.

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