Richard North, 14/12/2017  

Since 1972, Parliament has been sitting on its hands, allowing successive EU treaties to be signed. It has then been content to ratify these treaties, holding unto itself only the power to make the decisions as to whether more and more of its powers should be outsourced to Brussels.

Then, when it finally came to whether we should leave the EU, the people made the decision, in the face of a parliament that, on balance, supported continued membership. And now that the people have decided and the government is in the process of implementing their decision, some MPs have rediscovered "democracy" and have demanded a vote on the withdrawal settlement negotiated under Article 50.

Having awarded themselves this vote, if Dominic Grieve's amendment survives (which it probably won't), they could severely damage the withdrawal process. Once the Article 50 settlement has been concluded, there is no provision for it to be renegotiated if any of the parties reject it, leaving the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.

In theory, MPs could rescue us from a bad deal, but since its effects could not begin to match the consequences of no deal,  MPs have awarded themselves the power to turn a crisis into a potential disaster - all in the name of democracy. What happens, for instance, if the European Council and Parliament approve the deal and Westminster says "no"?

The fact that we are confronted with this situation is, of course, highly unsatisfactory, but one should note that the essentially flawed Article 50 came with the Lisbon Treaty. This was approved by parliament – after a referendum had been rejected. That makes it parliament's mess (in part) – they need to put up with it, just like the rest of us have to.

Much of the angst is, in any event, special pleading. The wording of the Article 50 settlement is only a very small part of the overall withdrawal process, with little lasting effect (barring, of course, Northern Ireland, which could as yet scupper the deal).

But if I am right in my assessment, then the transitional arrangements will need a new treaty, as will any trade deal agreed with the EU. And in both instances, parliament will get a vote, if it can be bothered. The UK ratification process makes provision for a vote if parliament demands it.

Given the quality of the debates we see in the House, and the average MP's understanding of EU and trade issues, any debate leading to such votes would hardly we worth the time. In any case, since most MPs vote on party lines, the outcomes would mostly be pre-ordained. But the point is that parliament does have the power to make a difference. Mostly it doesn't bother. It just makes noise – rather a lot of it.

As much as anything then, yesterday's vote represented nothing very much, other than an opportunity for MPs to indulge in yet more grandstanding – which is about the only thing they're any good for. It also reflected the inwards-looking nature of the institution and the chronic parochialism which elevates local interests above far more important events happening elsewhere.

One of those events took place in in Strasbourg, where Michel Barnier spoke to the plenary session of the European Parliament, reporting "on the extraordinary negotiation with the United Kingdom and on the first result we reached last Friday". From that one speech, we glean more information of use to us than we get from a bucket-full of Westminster effluvia.

Central to Barnier's speech was a reminder of his core philosophy. In this negotiation, he said,
… our state of mind has never been to make mutual concessions. This is not about making concessions on citizens' rights. This is not about making concessions on the peace process or stability on the island of Ireland. Nor is it about making concessions on the thousands of investment projects which are financed by EU policy and the EU budget.
There's nothing new here, but it does serve to illustrate once again how wrong HMG's approach to the negotiations has been, treating them as bargaining sessions as if in a souk. This was not the way to do business.

What was especially interesting, though, was Barnier's decision in his speech to focus principally on citizens' rights. The provisions of the Joint Report were spelt out, with the EU's chief negotiators pointing out that the rights of "4.5 million European citizens" living in the UK would be protected by their inclusion in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Spelt out then was the singular fact that the Agreement will take precedence over national law and its guarantees "will have direct effect, for the duration of the lifetime of the people concerned".

"There will be no ambiguity in the interpretation of the rights on either side of the Channel", Barnier added. "Current ECJ case law will be part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and future case law will apply. British courts will have to take 'due regard' of case law for the lifetimes of the citizens concerned".

Furthermore, the British authorities will create an independent authority to which European citizens can have recourse in the United Kingdom, in the same way as British citizens in the EU can have recourse to the European Commission.

But it is a measure of the lack of trust that the "colleagues" have in the UK government that they are insisting that the details of this independent authority must be included in the Withdrawal Agreement. So indeed will the administrative procedures that the UK will apply to allow EU citizens to stay in the UK. Nothing is being left to chance – or the good will of the UK government.

Barnier, however, acknowledges that neither on this issue nor on the other subjects of the orderly withdrawal "are we there yet". He thus points out that there are many details still to be resolved,some of which have yet to emerge into the public domain, such as Euratom.

We will continue the negotiations on the subjects that need more clarification, he says, deepening and negotiation: the governance of the future agreement, other subjects such as geographical indications, the issue of data.

As to Ireland, this "will form part of its own specific strand in the negotiations". "Each assuming their responsibility, we need to find specific solutions for the unique situation of the island of Ireland", he adds. The UK is not going to be allowed to roll this in with the trade negotiations. The issue will have to be settled, or we go no further.

Hinting at battles to come, Barnier talked of moving forward on defining a transition period. It will be "short and supervised during which we will maintain the full regulatory and supervisory architecture – and obviously the role of the Court of Justice – as well as European policies".

Meanwhile, on the future relationship, that is a matter for "our internal preparation". It is not open, at this stage, for the UK to take part in the discussions.

But certain things had already been decided. "I can already tell you, and I say so clearly and calmly", Barnier declared, "that there are non-negotiable points on the integrity of Single Market, the four indivisible freedoms which are the foundation of the Single Market, and the autonomy of the Union's decision-making, which the UK has decided to leave".

And never missing an opportunity to remind us of our coming status, he added: "The United Kingdom will become a third country on 29 March 2019", then asserting, "We think that a close, future partnership remains our common horizon".

To conclude, Barnier told the European Parliament, "We know where we are today; we know where we are going". Would that a UK government could be so confident. But with Dominic Grieve snapping at its heels, the very last thing our government knows is the nature of its destination – even less does it know how to get there.

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