Parliamentary approval for the final Brexit deal will also help Britain's bargaining position

Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Clement Julhia


While everyone waits for the Supreme Court’s verdict regarding Parliament’s right to vote on triggering Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, many are arguing Parliament should also be able to approve or reject the deal for Britain’s future relations with Europe when negotiations come to an end.

Aside from the legal and moral reasons for or against this, it would be interesting to see what benefits could come from having Parliament weigh in on the final decision to leave the EU. 

To sum up the respective positions on both sides of the negotiating table, Theresa May’s government would want, ideally, to secure the most favorable access to the common market while putting up serious border control to limit immigration and avoid contributing to the EU’s budget. 

On the other hand, it is expected that Brussels’ preference would be for a “Norwegian solution” (i.e. independence from the EU’s jurisdiction but similar obligations towards free movement of goods and persons and contribution to Europe’s budget).  

As per Article 50, Britain’s exit will take place two years after being applied. It is true there is currently an argument about whether it will be possible once Article 50 is triggered for the government to change its mind and put an end to the exit process, since the Treaty of Lisbon does not say explicitly that Article 50 is irreversible.

However, practically speaking, it might as well be, considering the people voted directly for Brexit, it would not be politically viable for a Prime Minister – especially if she was not elected – to ignore that decision. 

If no agreement is reached, then the UK will have no more relations with the EU than any other member of the World Trade Organisation. This is of course undesirable for the UK. But it is also not something Europe wants for itself. Why? 

An obvious reason is that the UK is one of the largest economies in Europe, especially in terms of capital liquidity, and even though EU countries put together form a much larger economic bloc, limiting trade with Britain would still carry serious consequences. For another thing, completely breaking off all trade agreements across the Channel means that countries on the continent would not have any bargaining chip left if they wanted to negotiate with the UK on other issues, which is bound to happen considering the geographic and cultural proximity of the two areas.

Perhaps a more cynical reason why Brussels might not want to leave Britain completely to its own devices is the risk that Britain succeeds nonetheless, making the EU seem redundant and encouraging other members to leave, which is what Brussels wants to avoid above all else.    

Given this, the negotiations between Brussels and Whitehall can be compared to what game theorists call a game of “chicken”. Metaphorically, it can be understood as two cars driving rapidly towards one another. The first to turn and avoid collision loses, but if no-one turns, the cars crash and everybody loses. In the case of Brexit negotiations, the first one to concede and agree to the other’s demands loses, while having no deal at all at the end of the two-year period would be a failure for both parties.  

This is where Parliament comes in. The majority in Parliament share, to a large extent, the government’s objective of achieving a free trade relation with the continent while recovering control of the border. Passing the deal through Parliament would have the effect of tying May’s hands, not allowing her to agree to a treaty that is considered to be unfavourable to the UK.

In the metaphor of the chicken game, this is as if one of the drivers threw their steering wheel out of the window, guaranteeing that if the other car does not turn, they will collide, leaving both of them worse off. If Parliament threatens a red line, so to speak, on British concessions, then Brussels would be pressed to meet this red line and agree to some of Britain’s demands rather than facing the prospect of no agreement at all. 

Whether Parliament should or not be an actor in the coming negotiations and to what extent is a complex legal and political issue. What can be said, however, is that should it acquire a veto power on the terms of Britain’s departure, this could have an ironically beneficial effect on Mrs. May’s gambling position.   

Clement Julhia

Bow Group International Affairs Research Fellow