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A public policy blog from AEI
Towards an Imperfect Union: A Conservative Case for the EU
There is no question that for many of its supporters, the UK’s departure from the European Union is a question of parliamentary sovereignty. The details of how exactly the UK leaves are certainly important, wrote Conservative Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan after the 2016 referendum, “but less important than the thing that everyone agrees will now happen, namely a recovery of parliamentary supremacy.”
But not so fast. The continuing acrimony over Brexit negotiations in Westminster suggests that not everybody has been equally committed to the idea in practice, especially among hardline Brexiteers. The government itself argued that the departure was a matter of the so-called Royal Prerogative, which gives the executive broad powers to, among other things, conclude international treaties without seeking Parliament’s consent. In January last year, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled, however, that starting the process of leaving required a parliamentary vote.
On Tuesday, following a pushback on the EU withdrawal bill from the House of Lords and after a stand-off between the government and a group of Conservative MPs, led by Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney General for England and Wales, Prime Minister Theresa May acquiesced to the demand of the MPs for a “meaningful vote.” As a result, if no agreement with the EU is reached by November 30, the House of Commons will have to hold another vote on how to proceed.
Those seeking more parliamentary control over Brexit have a point. The UK’s departure can lead to a vast range of domestic outcomes, from an extreme “no deal” scenario which would disrupt trade and cooperation in areas ranging from aviation to counterterrorism to an essentially seamless relationship of the kind enjoyed by Norway and Switzerland. To argue that only one of those outcomes (usually, the most radical one) is compatible with the 2016 vote and that it furthermore requires no deliberation in Parliament is a slap in the face of the idea of sovereignty, understood as self-governance.
It is perhaps understandable that the government, which finds itself between a rock (namely, the intransigence of Brussels and genuinely difficult challenges such as the Irish border) and a hard place (delusions of those who are pushing an extreme idea of Brexit), is naturally inclined to subject itself to as little parliamentary scrutiny as possible, under the pretext that it strengthens its negotiating positions.
What is more revealing is how the most radical Brexiteers have reacted to increased parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiations. Nigel Farage, for example, has vowed to campaign for the abolition of the House of Lords after it had “defied Brexit” through its amendments to the withdrawal bill. In an absurd turn of events, a key architect of the 2016 vote is suggesting that the UK should get rid of, if need be, the most distinctly British feature of its constitutional order.
Parliamentary sovereignty, which Brexiteers so ostentatiously sought to liberate from the shackles of the EU, exists precisely to guide the country through difficult policy decisions. Parliamentary deliberation does not suddenly become a moot point after a plebiscite — if only because yes-or-no referenda are singularly ill-suited to address complex, multifaceted problems. Needless to say, as new facts become apparent — e.g. that it is possible to manage movement of people within the single market, and even target labor market policies, like Switzerland does, to one’s own population — Parliament should not feel shy to rethink the supposed implications of the 2016 referendum.
Of course, to try to reverse Brexit now would be a long shot, and arguably not an advisable one. Yet, as a matter of principle, it would be fully consistent with the role that Parliament plays in the British political system. Those who say otherwise and who also seek to deny it a say in the modalities of Brexit inadvertently show that their euroscepticism was never motivated by parliamentary sovereignty to begin with.
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