Downing Street is running hard with the line that for Parliament to have a ‘meaningful vote’ on the final deal would hurt the UK’s bargaining position. See (amongst other places) here and here.
But is this true?
Let’s just clear away some undergrowth so we can focus on the question.
Let’s assume that leaving without a deal would be hugely damaging. It would be harmful in trade terms, it would be harmful in broader regulatory terms and it would harmful for UK citizens living in the other member States who would, for example, lose the right to free healthcare.
Leaving without a deal is, then, not really an option.
What ‘having a meaningful vote’ then means (in effect) is Parliament having the ability to reject whatever deal Number 10 strikes with Brussels without us having to leave without a deal. It has that ability if it can revoke – or ask the electorate whether it wants to revoke – the Article 50 notification so that we remain in the EU.
And let’s just assume this is possible.
So what’s Number 10’s position on having a meaningful vote?
But is this right?
No, or so it seems to me at least. For four overlapping reasons.
First, it assumes that the other 27 are desperate to keep us.
If you were to ask them today, the 27 other member states would probably say they’d rather we remained. Probably – I’m not aware of any evidence. But it defies reality to assert that they are so desperate for us to Remain that they would deliberately set out to offer us an ugly deal even where the consequence of doing so might well be that we left the EU with no deal at all, hurting their citizens and businesses and ours too.
It’s even more bold to think that in two years time, after two years of exposure to our ‘have your cake and eat it’ negotiating strategy, and after two years of exposure to our rather vigorous tabloids, the other 27 remain so desperate for our continued membership that they take this risk.
This feels to me like exceptionalism on steroids.
Second, it assumes that it is better for us to Leave whatever the consequence.
We do not know what the future holds.
The vote to Leave occurred in a very different, and much more stable, world than we now live in. It was before the election of Trump who in a few short weeks has undermined NATO, undermined the WTO, threatened to renegotiate the trade deal of any state running a trade surplus with the US, threatened a border tax to discriminate against imports, threatened war against Iran and China and so on.
And – although supporters of Brexit are still running hard with the’having our cake and eating it’ line – the fact remains that we do not know what Brexit will look like. We do not know what the final deal will be. And we do not know what the consequences are.
No one making a decision of this magnitude in a climate this uncertain rationally chooses to make that decision earlier than she could. Even if she believes she is set on the right course she retains her optionality to the very last moment.
And by seeking to deny Parliament a meaningful vote what, in effect, Theresa May is choosing is irrationality. Forget the evidence, she is saying, we will leave whatever changes around us.
Third, it’s an unexplored assumption that a meaningful vote weakens our position.
The situation (without Parliament having a meaningful vote) is that we have to strike a deal within two years or suffer the consequences of leaving without one. If you want an analogy, you might compare this with having made a decision to emigrate and having booked your flight and needing to sell your car before you go. The would be purchaser wants the car but because you are up against the clock – and he knows it – your ability to hold out for the best price is limited.
That’s not a great bargaining position.
The alternative – having a meaningful vote – would give us the opportunity to decide ‘this deal is not good enough’ (or to use my analogy cancel our decision to emigrate). In that situation we are not held hostage against the clock in the same way. But, of course, there is a price attached to improving our bargaining position – we have to be prepared not to leave.
And, if you want to leave, that’s not a great bargaining position either.
You can weigh and spin these alternatives endlessly. But ultimately it seems to me that there is an air of unreality to the contention that Parliament having a meaningful vote weakens our position. We have decided to leave: the Government’s position is that the Article 50 notification won’t be revoked. And the EU knows we have decided to leave. A good deal is in our mutual interests – but there is no certainty we will be able to achieve one. No deal is in our mutual disinterest – but there is no certainty we will be able to avoid one.
And in the circumstances you get on with it and do the best you can and leave the weighing and spinning for the birds.
Fourth. Actually? This isn’t a fight about our bargaining position.
And this is the killer point.
Parliament is supreme. It can decide that it wants to remain. And even if Theresa May wants it not to be so it would still be so. It doesn’t need an amendment to the Article 50 Bill to confirm it is so. It is a fundamental tenet of our constitution.
And the EU knows this. So if the opportunity for Parliament to have a meaningful vote weakens our bargaining position then that weakening doesn’t follow from an amendment to the Article 50 Bill. It is hard-wired into our constitution. And it can’t be changed.
And all this talk from her spokesperson about “giving strength to other parties” is a mere smokescreen for that basic, undeniable truth.
So what’s all this really about?
It’s about control. Who gets to control these profoundly important decisions about whether we crash out without a deal? Or about whether we might look at the sum total of the evidence and choose to Remain? Does Theresa May, who has never been offered to the electorate as a Prime Minister, get to make them? Or does Parliament, whose MPs have a roving mandate from the electorate, get to make them?
And all the rest is smoke and mirrors.Follow @jolyonmaugham
Parliament has had a say in a lot of things with regard to the EU, many of them deeply damaging to the country. Indeed, both Heath and Wilson knew full well what the eventual EU programme was and very carefully avoided telling the electorate. What we were sold was a Common Market, something that most people thought an excellent idea.
What we got was the EU, which the majority do not like at all, and with good reason.
To suggest that Trump is anti NATO is nothing compared to the antics of the EU. It is dead set on creating a European Army, presumably made up of the forces of the member states. So who is running the show? NATO or Brussels. One cannot serve two masters. NATO has kept the peace in Europe for the last 70 years, which is a pretty good track record. By contrast, the EU played a role in the Yugoslavian disaster and by trying to get Ukraine to join the EU, the misery of that country too.
Your killer point is no such thing. Parliament does not decide if we remain. We the people do and we have issued parliament clear and unambiguous instructions. Get us out. Parliament is the servant of the people, something your article has either forgotten or ignored.
Furthermore, negotiations will not be with the 27 but rather the Commission which has a long history of doing its own thing, regardless of what the people want or even what was agreed.
Take the Working Time Directive. This was part of employment law and we opted out of that element and everyone was happy, or at least not too upset. The Commission disliked this arrangement, so simply moved the directive so that it fell under Health and Safety to which we had agreed. This was a unilateral move in defiance of a negotiated agreement,. I am at a loss as to why the British Government did not ignore it.
Then we have the Treaty of Lisbon. The French had a referendum and quite clearly voted Non. So the Commission moves chapters about a bit, changes the cover and title and bingo – Lisbon.
The Commission is unelected and unaccountable. Jean Claude Juncker was elected by 28 people from a short list of one. Therefore, even if he got no votes at all but had been proposed and seconded, he would have got the job. To suggest that the EU is in any way democratic and accountable is nonsense on stilts.
You can rest assured that the Commission will do everything in its power to really hurt the UK. There has already been talk of a £60 billion pay out as a sort of divorce settlement. They can whistle for that. Under Article 50, even if we do end up with a sensible deal, this can be rejected by the EU parliament and there are enough integrationists in there to ensure that this is a likely outcome. Our lot will not get a look in.
With regard to the future, this year will be very interesting. The UK set everything rolling with our vote to leave. There are plenty of other countries who are fed up with the EU who are going to the polls this year. The Five Star movement goes from strength to strength while Marine le Pen is doing well in France. AfD in Germany is also gaining ground. Who knows how this will play out in the elections?
One thing is for sure. Whoever wins, those advocating leave will be in the ascendant, if not on top. There are plenty of French politicians who are only now discovering that the EU is stifling France the same as everywhere else and if this continues, things will only get worse.
The euro is destroying southern Europe. So far, it has only condemned Greece to eternal poverty, but Italy looks shakier by the day. Spain has high unemployment and very high youth unemployment and things are none too rosy in France either. They are all well aware of this and the people are waking up to the straitjacket approach of the EU.
For some unfathomable reason, the Lords have decided to put EU rights before those of our citizens. We have lost sight of our essential priorities that badly and it is shameful. The government tried to get the EU to agree to rights across the board and were swiftly sent packing. As for anything being hard wired into our Constitution, that would be difficult because we do not have one.
Instead, we have tried really hard to reform the EU from the inside to get it to become representative and it has steadfastly refused. Enough. We cannot reform it and after 40 years of trying, have given up.
If the EU is sensible, we will end up with an equitable deal that will restore to us our fishing grounds, borders and sovereignty while allowing trade to continue in a viable manner. If the EU is not sensible, which is more likely, it will try and punish the UK. Well, plenty have tried and not got very far. If we leave with no deal, we will do business elsewhere in the world and trade globally outside the customs union of the EU. We buy far more from them than they do us. We will simply buy stuff elsewhere.
I think that your fourth point is an odd one, you almost say it doesn’t matter whether a right of intervention is taken for Parliament in this Bill, because it could be in a future Bill. If so, why bother making the argument?
Parliament is sovereign, yes, but the bringing forth of new business, including new Bills, is a near monopoly of the executive (the Government of the day). Some combination of backbenchers and opposition parties might well feel aggrieved at a situation and wish to legislate to address a problem, such as intervening in the article 50 process, but introducing a non-Government sponsored Bill is likely to be met by any number of wrecking tactics employed by the executive and is unlikely to result in a change of law.
But the Lords and you know all this, which is why you seek to secure the right to intervention in an Act now, rather than waiting and bringing forth new legislation later.
Your fourth point almost says it doesn’t matter if this power is taken now; but it matters in the utmost. The EU will take a realistic view of the working of Parliament, not a constitutionally theoretical one.
I agree with the points made. Indeed, it seems to me that “We’ll never get that through Parliament” is a mildly useful line for the UK’s negotiators.
However, I think the whole idea of a “meaningful vote” is fool’s gold. What could Parliament say in reality?
Not that the government should try harder – they will have done their best.
Not that the overall strategy was wrong, that they should have prioritised single market membership over control of immigration, say. The time to say that is now (and they have said it and been ignored).
So they could comment on details. The Government sacrificed X to achieve Y – Parliament could say that X is more important and send the Government back to rebalance the package. Well, good luck with that, and not much point. Details are just details.
But could Parliament vote to Remain? In law yes of course (although we should not forget how much Government controls Parliament in reality, including the ability to determine what is voted on and how). Politically? No. MPs will still feel bound by the June 2016 referendum, even in November 2018. The referendum is the highest expression of the will of the people, larger turnout than any recent election.
So the options are that MPs vote for Brexit in 2018, vote in 2018 for a referendum on the terms, or vote now to have a referendum on the terms in 2018. The last is the best method to give people a meaningful say on the terms, indeed on Brexit.
It is only because Remain campaigners have devoted their efforts to calling the June vote invalid that they are unable to accept that it is politically binding – think of the votes on the Article 50 Bill. Once we accept the reality of the June referendum, we can then explain to all voters that since Leave had no plan, the mandate from June is only provisional. Therefore – since no-one takes a project from idea to implementation without a project review – there should be a referendum on the terms. As with every project review it includes the option to not do the project, i.e. to Remain.
We do have a constitution – it has evolved since 1679 as both many Acts of Parliament and as continuous case law. Thus it is written but not codified into a single document. This is why the courts ruled the way they did and why Theresa May has to follow Parliament’s instructions in the first, second up to last analysis. She really should have known better and has wasted 6 months.
But in calling a referendum Parliament has (unusually) subordinated itself to the people. Whatever process is carried out on thiis issue, Parliament is under instruction from the people from beginnig to end.
It was impossible before the referendum to have any Leave manifesto, whatever the Remain complaints. There was no possibility of negotiation and no prior knowledge of the final terms. Assertions were made but those had no force. But once the A50 negotiations are finalised, we will know.
Therefore at the end of the Article 50 process, a full Act of Parliament is required not only to agree that the terms as negotiated meet the initial instruction but, if they are acceptable to Parliament it must again ask the people it if has carried out their wishes in order to close the issue.
If the terms are appropriate and the people agree, off we go. If the terms are not appropriate or the people do not agree, we stay. Anything else is undemocratic and will leave a very split and damaged country.
I do wonder what the Leave protagonists are afraid of in opposing a final Act and a final referendum. If they cannot make the case, then they will have failed. If they can, and have a firm platform on which to stand – the negotiated outcome – then they will have succeeded.
The issue of EU citizens legally resident in the UK is a moral question. To leave them in such doubt, as Theresa May has done, is to threaten them with ethnic cleansing, no less.
We have no control over how the EU27 will deal with British citizens legally resident in the EU27 but by not treating their citizens fairly and ethically, we are less likely to be able to secure our citizens who wish to remain resident in the bloc. We are the ones wanting to leave (according to the referendum) so we should have taken the first step. Shame on the government.
Kevan Chippindall-Higgin is having a laugh surely?
Typical leaver with no idea how the EU is run. So full headlong rush into conspiracy zone it is. Take the nonsense he writes on the Commission. Other than the fact that Commissioners are approved by parliament (and therefore *are* accountable), unlike British civil service, the Commission *is* the equivalent of our own civil service, and doesn’t take decisions, which are rightly left to elected bodies – the Council of the EU and European Parliament.
I chuckled at his final denouement on the state of European politics – AfD in Germany is grounded, Marine Le Pen will not win in France, Gert Wilders is slipping inexorably in the polls.
All polls in European countries except Greece show their populaces agreeing in greater numebrs to remain not just in the EU but in the euro too.
So far from being a beacon to follow, Britain’s push to Brexit is seen is a dangerous folly – which it is – not to be aped.
Never understood the logic of the Leavers like Kevan who think the UK is getting picked on in insufferably the EU (despite being one of its largest members for 40 years and agreeing with the vast majority of its laws in that time) and now will suddenly bestride the globe to agree unabashedly pro British trade deals with all and sundry. It’s like Leavers don’t understand (because they don’t) that there are always two or more parties to any agreement, all with their own interests to promote.
Waving little flags and screaming sovereignty won’t save Britain as it leaks investment, jobs and goodwill while the grinding process of Brexit is taking place.
As for the EU army, why was that ever a reason to leave? The only way to head off such a thing (if that was our position) was to remain and veto it. Now of course Britain has no say (get used to that impotence by the way), so the EU can jolly well do what it wants without British sulking.
Poor old Kevan hasn’t convinced anyone at all, other than confirm that Leavers are not at home to reason and logic.
I think your first point is the critical one – the other 27 will be delighted to see the back of us. The last thing they want is another 45 years of a stroppy gooseberry sulking in a corner and contributing nothing to the discussions except demanding either an opt out or its money back. Saying that we are committed to leave with or without a deal is what undermines our position. Why would they want to give us a deal that is of any use to us if we are going to leave anyway. If Mrs May really wants to get what she seems to want out of the EU, she should threaten to remain.
You are very one sided in terms of how you extrapolate your first two points.
Here’s an alternative: at this French election or at a later one, someone like Le Pen wins the French election. With the UK out of the EU that puts the sole EU nuclear deterrent under her control. How do you fancy that?
Anyway, my main point is one of timing. If there is a vote at the end of the process it will be a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ affair. It won’t be a ‘take-it-or-remain’ or ‘take-it-and-return-to-the-negotiationing-table’ affair. The time limit will have expired. For your proposal to make sense you seem to think it would be possible to remain in the EU for more than two years after art50 notification. At a minimum the rest of EU27 would not agree to that aside from domestic UK political considerations.
So if you are to extrapolate your first two points in a (fairly wild, i would argue) direction that suits your argument, then you should be consistent all the way to the end – you say the EU don’t really need/want us, so they most certainly won’t want to see us linger around for more than two years after art50 notification. That would create a kind of constitutional gridlock within the EU itself.
It seems to me the only way the UK can enjoy being in the EU is for the pro-EU lobby to start building a campaign to rejoin once we have left. Trying to prevent exit is only going to make harder exit options more appealing.
C Jones, you have certainly set out the Government’s and the Labour Party’s position on what a vote on the terms would be.
But there is no inherent reason why there should not be a vote with the option to Remain. Every project review includes the option not to do the project. Brexit should be no different.
The EU expect to complete the negotiations within 18 months in order to allow time for ratification by EU institutions and member states. That leaves enough time within the two year article 50 limit for a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain.
Facebook: Campaign for the Real Referendum – on the Terms of Brexit.
George makes a good point. May could threaten to stay to get the best deal, on the other hand wouldn’t it be easier for the EU if we stayed and kept on contributing financially? I agree that Marine Le Pen is unlikely to be elected but look at what happened with Trump.