A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Taking Back Control

The Brexit vote was supposed to reestablish parliamentary sovereignty. It has done the opposite.

The British parliament will be the only one in the European Union that won’t get to vote on the terms of the United Kingdom leaving the EU. But that isn’t the only irony surrounding Brexit.

© Parliament TV/Handout via REUTERS

For 25 years, euroskeptics in the United Kingdom have complained and warned of the dangers of the “undemocratic” European Union. The British people must claw back sovereignty from Brussels, they told voters ahead of last year’s referendum. It was time to take their country back.

But this week, these same MPs voted to strip parliamentarians at the Palace of Westminster of their power. They granted Prime Minister Theresa May absolute authority over Britain’s future relationship with the EU, rebuffing an attempt by the House of Lords to give the parliament an up or down vote over the final deal in two years’ time.

It was a remarkable surrender, particularly considering that other institutions of state have said doing so would be an unprecedented act, one that flies in the face of 300 years of British history. Historians have observed that there are practically no examples of the British parliament voluntarily abdicating so much power.

And it is also highly ironic that Monday’s vote means that the UK parliament will be the only one in the EU that does not have the right to be consulted over the final exit deal.

In two years’ time, as British MPs wait to see if the new relationship with the EU is acceptable to the other 27 national parliaments, they can only sit idly by and watch. They will have no say in the matter, even if they think it is a terrible deal for the UK.

A One-Party State

Earlier this year the Supreme Court rebuffed May’s attempt to circumvent MPs. The court ruled that she cannot start the process of leaving the EU until she is given permission to do so by an act of parliament.

While it was unlikely that MPs would choose to go against the 52-48 leave victory, it was expected that they would grant themselves the right to approve or reject the deal May worked out over the course of the 24-month period set by Article 50, the EU’s leaving mechanism. Indeed, the less-powerful, unelected upper house of the Parliament, the House of Lords, voted to do just that.

But the Lords were overruled by MPs in the House of Commons on Monday, who passed legislation giving May a blank check to do whatever she deems appropriate in crafting a deal that will shape British history for decades to come. In effect, they chose to ignore the court’s ruling, giving May the same supreme authority that she always insisted she had.

Why did MPs surrender the British parliament’s power? May had insisted that the specter of such a vote at the end of the process would weaken the UK’s negotiating hand. The 27 other EU member states would know that May would have to secure parliamentary approval, and they could exploit that to their own benefit. How they might do so was never fully explained by the prime minister.

MPs from her Conservative Party fell in line. Astonishingly, so did MPs from the opposition Labor Party, which is in a state of disarray under the chaotic and divisive leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. The lock-step acceptance of handing supreme power to a Conservative prime minister, who is still to win a general election prompted many commentators this week to proclaim that the UK is now a one-party state.

By stripping the final vote provision from the legislation, MPs have ignored decades of precedent. It would be the first time in modern British history that a free trade deal is passed without a meaningful vote by the British parliament; in fact, it would be unprecedented in Europe.

Democracy is Continental

The big hole in May’s argument for her supreme power over Brexit is that she is not the only head of government who will have had to sell the post-Brexit deal to a national parliament. The UK’s terms of leaving the EU, and any parallel or subsequent trade agreement, will be an international treaty between the EU and a third country, and such treaties need to be approved by every national parliament in the EU. The UK, no longer in the EU at that point, will be free of this requirement for democratic accountability by national MPs.

The ratification process by 27 national parliaments (and by the European Parliament) will present a significant obstacle for May. Last year saw CETA, the mammoth EU-Canada free trade pact, almost felled by the regional parliament of Wallonia (which, under Belgium’s quirky constitution, must also approve treaties before the national parliament can).

If there is a perception that a future EU-UK pact gives undo advantages to Britain at the expense of Europe, national MPs on the continent are likely to reject it. And then the UK will either have to stay in the EU, or suddenly trade with the EU on WTO terms – the same relationship enjoyed by Uruguay.

During negotiations, continental European leaders will be able to keep pointing to this need for ratification. “I’d love to accept that provision, Theresa, but it will never pass in the Bundestag.” What arrow does May have in her quiver to respond? “I would drop this demand, Angela, but my parliament will never accept a deal that doesn’t include it. Oh wait…”

So what happens if May ends up with a bad deal for Britain, a scenario that is quite likely? Will the British public be able to decide if they prefer this new arrangement over EU membership in another referendum? No: May has ruled this out. Will they be able to contact their local MP to tell him or her to vote against the new deal? No, because the parliament won’t be voting.

British subjects will have to sit back, powerless, while one woman takes a unilateral decision that will affect them, their children, and their grandchildren.

Is this the new era of democracy that the British were promised?