In the recent debates about Parliament’s role in Brexit, MPs have leaned on the promise that they will have the same level of scrutiny over the negotiations as their counterparts in the European Parliament. But the Government needs to be clear about what this means in practice.
If MPs are going to be able to scrutinise the UK’s negotiating position in a meaningful way, changes will need to be made well before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. Otherwise there is a real risk that MEPs will have greater access to details of the EU’s negotiating position than Westminster MPs. The danger then is that the Government will not be accountable to Parliament in the same way.
Based on what we know of Europe’s approach to past negotiations, the UK Government will need to give Parliament:
Access to confidential information on negotiating positions
As we’ve all heard several times, Theresa May will not reveal the UK’s negotiating position before talks begin. Clearly, the position should not become public knowledge. But if Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, does want the UK and European Parliaments to have parity of information, he must set out how he will create confidential channels between the Government and parliamentarians.
MEPs have access to the negotiating directives set by the European Council at the beginning of negotiations – in effect, a high-level negotiating position. For example, during the contentious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations, access to confidential documents – including draft compromises reached between the EU and US negotiators – was granted to all MEPs through private reading rooms in the European Parliament building.
In the UK, this could be replicated though private meetings between ministers and relevant MPs to discuss sensitive elements of the negotiations, or by providing sensitive documents to MPs for scrutiny. There is precedent for doing this: the Intelligence and Security Committee, which scrutinises the work of the UK security services, holds meetings and evidence sessions in private and issues heavily vetted public reports so as not to reveal confidential information.
Observer status on the talks
MEPs may be granted ‘observer’ status during international negotiations, though they may not participate directly in negotiations. This allows them to join their negotiations team as ‘observers’, attend European Commission meetings before and after negotiation sessions and meet with the EU negotiating team. The Government must explain how they will match this level of involvement here in Westminster.
Opportunities to influence the negotiating position
MEPs are able to influence negotiations by voting on individual motions. While the Commission is not obliged to accept these recommendations, if it chooses not to, it must explain its reasons to the Parliament. Their recommendations shape negotiations – for example, when MEPs recently demanded a change on TTIP negotiations, the Commission was forced to act.
There are various ways in which the UK Parliament could exert similar influence over the Government’s negotiating position. Debates on the floor of the House – such as yesterday’s – are not legally binding on government, but allow parliamentarians to make their views known.
Select committees are another route to influencing the negotiating position. Several committees have already set up inquiries on the impact of Brexit on a range of policy areas. In its response to these inquiries, the Government should set out how it plans to incorporate the committee’s findings into its negotiating position.
The European Parliament has substantial, legally-binding rights during international negotiations. The precise arrangements for involving the European Parliament in the Brexit negotiations are not yet clear but, based on previous international negotiations, they may include: detailed information about the progress of the negotiations; access to Commission meetings about the negotiations; and influence over the Commission’s negotiating position.
The UK Parliament is not currently set up to benefit from any of these. The Government will therefore need to make changes to fulfil its pledge that UK MPs will not be ‘at a disadvantage’ compared to MEPs.