The EU’s role in Brexit negotiations

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This Brexit Explained sets out how the European Union (EU) organises itself for negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. 

Which EU institutions are involved in negotiations?

Four EU institutions will play a significant role in the Brexit negotiations:

  • The European Council defines the general political direction and priorities of the EU. It consists of the heads of state or government of the member states, together with its President and the President of the European Commission. It does not negotiate or adopt EU laws.
  • The Council of the EU represents member states' governments. It is where ministers below the head of state from each EU country meet to adopt laws and co-ordinate policies. Along with the European Parliament, the Council plays a key role in negotiating and approving EU legislation and international agreements.
  • The European Commission is the EU’s executive body. It is the only institution with the authority to initiate legislation in most areas, though it draws on input from a variety of other bodies.
  • The European Parliament is a directly elected legislature, comprising 751 Members of the European Parliament (MEP) elected by citizens of the 28 member states. Its role in the legislative process is to scrutinise, amend and vote on legislation.

Who decides the EU’s negotiating position?

Two articles in EU treaties will govern how the Brexit negotiations are run:

According to EU treaties, the European Council, Council of the EU and the European Commission will all have a role in informing and agreeing the EU’s negotiating position. The European Council will agree the high-level guidelines for the negotiations; the Council of the EU will approve a more detailed, technical mandate; and the Commission will carry out the bulk of the negotiations.

Now that the UK has triggered Article 50, the European Council – excluding the UK – has produced draft guidelines outlining the core principles for the negotiation. These will be discussed and a version of them approved at the EU Council summit in April. 

It is likely that the European Council will then hand over to the European Commission and the Council of the EU to run the detailed negotiations. Using the European Council’s guidelines as a starting point, the Commission will draw on its legal, technical and policy expertise to draft a more detailed mandate for the negotiations, including recommendations on each area under negotiation. This mandate may also cover the process through which the negotiations will be conducted, and working arrangements between the Council and the Commission.

The Commission's draft mandate will then be discussed by the Council of the EU and must be agreed by a Qualified Majority Vote (excluding the UK). It may take several meetings of the Council to agree the final mandate. Once the mandate is agreed, the Commission will take over the negotiation process.


So is the Commission in charge of the negotiations?

The Commission has the technical and legal expertise and the manpower to carry out the bulk of the negotiations. However, it must act within the mandate set out by the Council of the EU, and will continue to work with the European Council throughout the negotiations. It’s likely that the Council will set up a ‘special committee’ of member state representatives to oversee the negotiations, and the Commission may also report back to the Council itself during the process.

While it is expected that the Council and Commission will work closely together on the negotiations, there have been reports of tensions between the two institutions on who has the most influence over the negotiations. Michel Petite, a former Director-General of Legal Services at the Commission, said at a recent IfG event that this struggle will be over the extent to which the Council can ‘look over the shoulder’ of the Commission as the negotiations proceed.

How will member states’ views be represented?

Member states will have various opportunities to feed their views into the negotiation process. Bilateral meetings with the Council President, Donald Tusk, are one way of making views clear at an early stage in the process, before negotiations begin. Then, when the Council drafts the guidelines for the negotiations, it will again work closely with member state representatives. And during the negotiations themselves, the Commission will continue to report back to the Council of the EU, so representatives of member states will be kept informed of proceedings. One mechanism for this will be the ‘special committee’ mentioned above.

Who are the key players in the negotiations on the EU side?

The Commission, Council and Parliament have all appointed lead Brexit negotiators, who will play a key role in preparing for and conducting the negotiations:

  • Michel Barnier,former Vice-President of the European Commission and former French Europe Minister, has been appointed by the Commission as its lead negotiator for Brexit talks. Once negotiations begin, his team will lead talks with the UK representatives. Until then, Barnier’s team will lead preparations for the negotiations – including preparing the Commission’s draft mandate for the negotiations.
  • Didier Seeuws, a Belgian diplomat, has been appointed by the Council to lead its taskforce on Brexit. He is likely to have a key role in advance of and during the negotiations: in co-ordinating the position of different member states and agreeing the European Council’s guidelines for negotiations; and in overseeing the work of the Commission as it carries out the negotiations. Seeuws may chair the special committee of member state representatives appointed to oversee the negotiations for the Council.  
  • The European Parliament has elected Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian Prime Minister and MEP, to act as its representative during negotiations.

What role does the European Parliament have in negotiations?

In theory, the European Parliament’s role in the negotiations process is fairly limited. Article 218 states that the Parliament must be kept ‘immediately and fully informed at all stages of the [negotiations] procedure’, but it does not give the Parliament a role in deciding the substance of the negotiations. However, the Parliament must pass the final agreement by a simple majority vote. This ability to reject the withdrawal agreement means that, in reality, the Parliament is likely to wield significant power over the content of the agreement and the negotiations itself. No majority in the European Parliament = no withdrawal agreement.

Given the importance of securing the Parliament’s approval, it is likely that the Parliament will be closely involved in the negotiations process. Guy Verhofstadt,the Parliament’s lead negotiator on Brexit, will feed its position into the negotiations and report back to the political group leaders in the Parliament.

Who gets a vote on the final deal?

Both the Council of the EU and the European Parliament are entitled to vote on the final deal. Once negotiations have concluded, the Council of the EU submits the draft withdrawal agreement to the European Parliament where it is put to a vote. The agreement needs a simple majority in order to proceed. Subsequently, the draft agreement returns to the Council of the EU. The Council also votes on the agreement but in this case, the agreement needs a qualified majority in order to pass – i.e. 72% of the 27 members states (representing at least 65% of the total population of the 27 member states) need to vote in favour of the agreement.

Only once the agreement gains consent from both of these institutions can it be formally adopted and negotiations officially concluded by the Council of the EU. The final agreement must be signed by the UK Government and the legislative consequences dealt with by the UK Parliament.