Parliament must push for a bigger role in the Brexit negotiations


TODAY is Brexit day at the Conservative Party conference and Theresa May has opened proceedings with two chunky announcements about Britain’s next steps towards the exit door. First, she intends to include a Great Repeal Act in next year’s Queen’s Speech. This will revoke the 1972 European Communities Act (ECA), the legislation that took Britain into the club and which channels European laws onto British statute books, from the point of Brexit. Second, she will trigger Article 50 (the two-year process by which Britain will negotiate its exit terms) by the end of March 2017. This is earlier than some had expected, as it comes before French and German elections in May and September respectively, and before the next Queen’s Speech. The prime minister is under pressure from die-hard Brexiteers—a gang led by Iain Duncan Smith has just published a package of demands amounting to a recklessly fast and complete break from the European Union—and is offering these two pledges as proof that the wheels of the process are finally starting to turn.

The sequencing of these two milestones is curious and points to a broader truth of the upcoming talks. It would be more natural for Parliament to debate and vote on repealing the ECA before the government invokes Article 50. After all, the latter (moving to leave the EU) is inconsistent with the former (the codification of Britain’s ongoing membership). Moreover, the binary result of the June referendum leaves many important questions unanswered; about the fashion in which the country will leave the club, for example, and the sort of new relationship to which it should aspire. As she begins negotiations next year Mrs May will have no mandate more nuanced than that conferred, informally, by the referendum: take Britain out of the EU. It would make sense for Parliament to deliberate on the next steps before the talks have begun, rather than afterwards, as the prime minister’s proposed timetable implies. After all, Article 50 requires a country leaving the union to issue notification of its intent “in accordance with its constitutional requirements”. Is parliamentary approval not the essence of Britain’s constitutional order?

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