With only 17 days left until the Brexit transition period ends, there is still no deal, and also no explanation from senior officials of how the European and British parliaments can possibly fulfill their responsibility to scrutinize and ratify — or reject — any agreement on a new trading relationship.
U.K. MPs do not have the right to formally vote on trade deals and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has declined to set out plans for ratification of any Brexit deal, though a vote by MPs remains likely. But given the government’s huge majority they are unlikely to face difficulty passing it.
However, in Brussels, some members of the European Parliament are expressing fury that they will be asked to rubber-stamp a deal at the last minute, in order to avoid the chaos of a no-deal scenario on January 1.
“Irresponsible and bitter,” Bernd Lange, a German MEP who is chairman of the International Trade Committee, tweeted after Johnson and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who had promised a firm decision on Sunday, instead announced that negotiations would continue. “Serious ratification is becoming increasingly impossible.”
Even officials who might be inclined toward working parliamentary magic said the walls were closing in.
“Things are going to be difficult for the Parliament,” said Roberto Cuillo, spokesman for Parliament President David Sassoli, noting that the only two dates available for MEPs to vote on the deal were December 23 or December 28. “Everything needs to be done in a very accelerated way,” Cuillo said.
Nathalie Loiseau, a French MEP and member of the Parliament’s U.K. Coordination Group, said a deal must be decided “in the next days or even hours,” for the official text to be ratified before December 31. Loiseau was not optimistic. “Progress from the U.K. is too weak to even envisage an agreement,” she said.
Under EU rules, the Parliament can only start its ratification process once negotiators complete their work, and the Council finalizes a deal and formally refers it to the Parliament, a process known by the French term saisine.
That means not only clinching a deal at the bargaining table but winning the approval of the 27 EU heads of state and government, any one of whom can veto the agreement.
Already, senior EU officials have said there will be no time even to meet some basic legal requirements, such as translating a proposed agreement, which is expected to run to more than 700 pages, into the EU’s 23 official languages other than English.
More substantively, however, the Parliament will be asked to approve the agreement — amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and in the middle of the holiday season —without time to hold hearings, to question negotiators, relevant civil servants or outside experts.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told the Parliament’s U.K. Coordination Group on Monday that if Brussels and London reach a deal this week, that deal could be approved by EU countries by December 27 and afterward be sent to Parliament for ratification, according to a person following the briefing. Although MEPs could use the days in between to read and analyze the text, the official timeframe for holding committee hearings and a plenary vote would be reduced to four days, instead of the four months that Parliament usually takes to scrutinize a trade deal.
David McAllister, the chairman of the U.K. Coordination Group, told Barnier during the meeting that, “If an agreement can be reached before Friday 18 December, the referral from Council would still arrive on time for an extraordinary plenary vote at the end of December,” according to an internal readout of the discussion.
MEPs say that such a rushed process, with inadequate scrutiny, would make a mockery of purported efforts by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to keep Parliament informed throughout the Brexit process, but also of Parliament’s role under the EU treaties — as the one institution whose members are directly elected by European voters.
“Such a trade deal would normally require months for ratification, now we have in the best case only a few days. What falls behind is not only the democratic examination but also the democratic debate about such an agreement. This is totally unacceptable given the importance of this agreement,” said Martin Schirdewan, a left-wing MEP on the U.K. Coordination Group.
The U.K. flatly refused to contemplate an extension of the transition period before the deadline for such a request expired on June 30, and it is unclear that the two sides could agree on such an extension at this point to allow sufficient time for parliamentary review.
Another option to avoid the cliff edge would be provisional application of the new trade deal with the U.K. before the Parliament signs it off. But the deal with the U.K. is unlike any traditional trade accord, and von der Leyen so far has opposed the idea, knowing that it would anger the Parliament by essentially presupposing its approval.
“There could be a provisional application before MEPs ratify the deal, but that would be unprecedented on such an agreement,” Loiseau said.
Other officials believe a provisional application would undermine the role and influence of the Parliament, which has not taken part in the negotiations between the EU and the U.K. but has been closely associated to the Brexit talks. “It means we tell the Parliament that we don’t care much about public scrutiny,” one Parliament spokesperson said.
Asked about the short timeframe, Commission officials on Monday did not even make the usual professions about the importance of Parliament playing its role in the process.
“We are of course aware that time is short,” the Commission’s spokesman on Brexit issues, Daniel Ferrie, said at the regular midday news conference. “The more time that goes by, the less likely it is that we will have a deal in place by the 1st of January. That’s just a fact.”
Pressed on whether there was sufficient time for Parliament to meet its ratification obligations, Eric Mamer, the Commission’s chief spokesman, said: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Such dismissiveness, suggesting that it is a question of work ethic on the part of Parliament’s 705 members to rush through the ratification process, has only added to the annoyance among MEPs, who repeatedly complain about a lack of institutional respect from the Commission, which is the EU’s executive, and the Council, the co-legislator comprised of the 27 member states.
For now, MEPs are due to hold a debate on the issue at a plenary session on Friday and adopt their own contingency measures in case of a no-deal.
Lili Bayer contributed reporting.
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