What role will the UK’s MEPs play in the new European Parliament?

simon.usherwood.staffOn 23 May, the UK participated in elections to the European Parliament. Now that we know who our MEPs are going to be, the question becomes: with the UK currently set to leave the EU on 31 October, what can they actually do? Simon Usherwood explains how the UK’s new MEPs can influence control of both the Parliament and the European Commission, and discusses the potential political consequences of exercising their legal authority.

In all of the hubbub around the European elections, the small matter of what the 73 individuals elected to serve as the UK’s Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will actually do has been somewhat overlooked.

With that in mind, it’s useful to consider what MEPs do in both general terms and more specifically on Brexit, as well as the tension between political understandings and legal rights.

A quick refresher

The European Parliament’s role in the EU is to represent the popular will, in both making decisions and providing scrutiny of the work of the rest of the organisation. It does that on the basis of being composed of directly elected members and from the powers given to it by the treaties that underpin the EU as a whole.

This role comprises a number of different elements, each involving the 751 MEPs either as a whole or in representative sub-groupings.

The most substantial element is that of being co-legislator. Under the EU’s Ordinary Legislative Procedure – which covers most areas of EU decision-making, as the name implies – the Parliament has to agree with the Council of the EU – made up of ministers from the member states – on a piece of legislation in order for it to pass. The EP thus has not only a say, but also a veto, on most EU legislation including matters relating to the budget; and in the other cases it usually has at least some rights of consultation.

The second element is that of oversight. The Parliament’s various committees can summon officials and politicians from the other institutions of the EU to appear before them to answer questions about their conduct. Those committees can then produce reports that highlight issues and which can often force problems onto the agenda for action. In extremis, the Parliament has the power to seek the resignation of the entire Commission, the threat of which in 1999 brought about the early end of the Santer Commission. Continue reading

Brexit and the constitution: seven lessons

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The process of exiting the European Union has revealed that the relationship between law and politics was perhaps not as sound as it might once have appeared. Jack Simson Caird believes that we are in the midst of a constitutional moment that has taught us seven key lessons.

Brexit can plausibly be described as a ‘constitutional moment’. The decision to leave the EU will shape the UK constitution over the coming decades. Even if the full extent of the constitutional changes that will flow from Brexit are not yet known, future Prime Ministers will be defined (in part, at least) by their ability to oversee successful constitutional reform. The post-referendum period has revealed a great deal about the relationship between the UK’s political system and its constitutional framework. Those responsible for changing the constitution moving forward will need to learn the lessons from this tumultuous period.

1. Governing without a majority needs a change of approach

One of the principal causes of the current crisis has been the way in which Theresa May’s government approached the task of governing without a majority. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, members of the government stressed the need to deliver on the referendum result without delay. The overwhelming sentiment was that the government, led by the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, should be left to get on with the task of negotiating a deal: a majoritarian mindset disconnected from the reality of a divided Cabinet and parliament. Instead, the government should have sought to build a majority for its proposed approach to delivering Brexit before it triggered Article 50 (or at the beginning of the 2017 Parliament).

Any future government that wishes to deliver constitutional change without a majority should look to the example of 2010 Coalition government. The coalition agreement struck between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats specified the constitutional changes that the two parties would agree to support. Theresa May’s government should have done the same and at the outset sought support for the substance of its approach for delivering Brexit.

2. Identify processes that can help to build consensus

The domestic process by which Brexit was to be delivered was not given sufficient attention early enough. Constitutional change gives rise to cross-cutting issues deserving of a special form of public and parliamentary scrutiny. In the absence of a rock-solid parliamentary majority, a special process needed to be constructed to deliver the constitutional transformation of the scale required by Brexit. The commitment to construct such a process at an early stage would have sent a positive message to other parties – and to the public – that the government was committed to finding a compromise that commanded wide support.

In the absence of a formal agreement with another party, the government could have sought to construct a bespoke process that might have facilitated cross-party support for delivering Brexit.

In the early stages of the process, suggestions that parliament should have more input in the negotiations were rejected on the basis that the government should not have its hands tied. Rather than treating these suggestions as an opportunity to bring MPs onside, they were treated as threats that could derail the process. Theresa May’s government only resorted to indicative votes and cross-party talks after the negotiations with the EU finished (and her deal or no deal strategy had failed) which did little to inspire the sense that the desire to engage was genuine.

3. Parliament needs to develop new forms of influence

The Article 50 process has demonstrated that parliament is a powerful constitutional actor. Since the Withdrawal Agreement was published in November 2018, the majorities against the Withdrawal Agreement and against a no deal exit shaped the debate. However, the Article 50 process has also shown that parliament’s influence on the substance of treaty negotiations and the legislative process is limited. Over the course of the 2017 parliament, the House of Commons inched its way to more control through innovative uses of parliamentary procedure, such as through business of the House motions and the Humble Address. The problem is that MPs only realised the extent of their power when it was too late. This meant that compromises were put together and agreed in haste. Essentially, backbench MPs made the same mistake as the government by not prioritising their influence over the process at an earlier stage.

4. The values of liberal democracy should be robustly defended

During the Brexit process, parliamentary scrutiny and debate has been characterised by some as anti-democratic. However, one of the central tenets of liberal constitutionalism is that proposals to change the constitution should be subject to scrutiny and debate. Constitutional democracy is in a very difficult place if this scrutiny and debate is not valued and defended. The core of the case for a carefully constructed procedure for constitutional change is that it enhances the democratic legitimacy of the end-product. How can constitutional reformers build the case for properly constructed change, if deliberation itself is undervalued in UK political culture?

The House of Commons and the Civil Service are restricted in their ability to defend their constitutional role by the requirements of impartiality. So, advocates of constitutional democracy need to robustly defend the role that institutions play in empowering citizens through democratic deliberation. No one is suggesting that politicians or institutions should be free from criticism (on the contrary, criticism is critical to their health and development). However, Brexit has highlighted a need for the values that underpin the basic elements of the democratic process to be defended far more vigorously.

5. Reframe the language of constitutional democracy

Prior to the referendum vote, the Vote Leave campaign demonstrated that a constitutional argument could be framed and communicated in a way that could cut through. Restoration of sovereignty (‘take back control’) was central to the Vote Leave campaign narrative. However, in the post-referendum period, the government has struggled to find a way of communicating the message that leaving the EU with a deal would empower ordinary citizens.

Of course, the reality of constitutional change is more complex than the messaging during the referendum campaign conveyed. However, it is clear that the constitutional ambition of the government was limited by its ability to communicate the value of democratic institutions. Implementing Brexit through radical constitutional change (by, for example, devolving power to English regions) would have required innovative ways of communicating this change to voters – and the government did not have this capacity.

6. Bring law and politics closer together

The Brexit process has exposed a fairly dysfunctional relationship between law and politics in Westminster. Parliamentarians have often been called out for misunderstanding some of the legal fundamentals of the Brexit process. The level of understanding of international law and EU law has been particularly problematic (although this perhaps reflects the limited incentives that parliamentarians have so far had to engage with either of these areas of law). At the same time, it is important to recognise that lawyers are not best equipped to engage with politics. As a result, the Brexit process has often been characterised by a frustratingly circular discourse. To improve the quality of debate over constitutional change, we need to bridge the gap between law and politics.

7. We need politicians that want to build a constitutional consensus

It may be that the UK’s constitutional democracy is in such difficulty that it cannot be repaired through piecemeal change. However, a more radical constitutional overhaul (perhaps in the form of a written constitution) will require politicians that are willing to prioritise finding a new constitutional settlement to resolve the post-Brexit divisions. At present, there are very few frontline politicians that prominently advocate constitutional change. It is not a message that seems to garner support.

Professor Jeff King’s inaugural lecture – delivered at University College London in April 2018 – persuasively argued that moving towards a written constitution in the UK would provide a means for citizens to take ownership over the UK’s constitutional democracy. In order to revitalise constitutional democracy in the UK post-Brexit, political leadership will need to harness this insight and communicate it to the public at large.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Counsel and is reprinted with permission.  

About the author

Dr Jack Simson Caird is Senior Research Fellow in Parliaments and the Rule of Law at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. He tweets as @jasimsoncaird

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The next PM’s territorial challenges

jack_sheldon.1The next stages of Brexit are now set to happen under a new Prime Minister. The chosen candidate will have to work with governments in Wales and Scotland that are openly critical. Northern Ireland may be without a government and the English regions may lack a unified voice, but neither can be taken for granted, especially as the new PM will rely on the DUP for confidence and supply. Leaving the European Union therefore cannot be separated from the challenges of maintaining the domestic union, as Jack Sheldon explains.

Following the announcement of Theresa May’s imminent resignation, the long-anticipated contest within the Conservative Party to succeed her has begun.

The campaign will inevitably be dominated by Brexit. But events over the past three years have shown that the future of relations with the EU cannot easily be separated from the future of the domestic Union. The candidates will thus need to give careful thought to how they will approach the major statecraft challenges presented by territorial politics across the UK if they become Prime Minister.

Renegotiating the Northern Ireland backstop will be popular with Conservative MPs – but a new Prime Minister might soon face the same dilemma as Theresa May

The Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ has been the main driver of opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement within the parliamentary Conservative Party and their confidence-and-supply partners the DUP. Consequently, there are strong short-term incentives for leadership contenders to commit to renegotiating it, in the hope that it might yet be possible to get a deal that doesn’t cut across Brexiteer red lines on the Single Market and customs union through the House of Commons. Pledges to this effect have already been made by Jeremy HuntBoris JohnsonEsther McVey and Dominic Raab.

In reality, substantive changes to the backstop will be extremely difficult to deliver. It remains the position of the EU27 and the Irish government that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.  Keeping an open Irish border has become highly salient in Ireland and the EU, and the new Prime Minister will need to appreciate that this means there is next to no chance that they will be open to trading the guarantees provided by the backstop for the loosely-defined ‘alternative arrangements’ envisaged by many Conservative MPs. The same dilemma Theresa May faced might thus soon confront her successor – whether, as an avowed unionist, to recoil from a no-deal scenario that would undoubtedly have disruptive effects at the Irish border and strengthen the case for an Irish border poll, or whether the delivery of Brexit trumps everything else.

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Taking stock: what have we learned from the European elections?

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Last week, voters across the UK (and indeed, across the European Union) took part in the European Parliament elections. Now that we know the outcome, Alan Renwick examines the impact on the results of both the rules that governed the election and the strategies of the parties.

The European elections raised important questions about how the voting system – and parties’ and voters’ reactions to it – might influence the results. Would the imperfect proportionality of the system harm the smaller parties? Should those parties – particularly the three Britain-wide anti-Brexit parties – have formed an alliance? Could voters maximise the impact of their ballots through tactical voting? Now that the results are in, it is time to take stock.

The impact of the rules

As I set out in an earlier post, European Parliament elections in Great Britain use a list-based system of proportional representation (while those in Northern Ireland use Single Transferable vote, or STV). This system is proportional, but not very. The D’Hondt formula for allocating seats favours larger parties. So does the fact that the number of seats available in each region (ranging from three in the North East of England to ten in the South East) is fairly low.

The results would certainly have been different had the elections been held using First Past the Post, as was the case for European elections in Great Britain before 1999. This system, still used for Westminster elections, awards a seat to the largest party in each constituency. Had voters cast the same votes as they did on Thursday, the Brexit Party would under First Past the Post have won almost every seat in England and Wales outside London and the Home Counties; the Liberal Democrats and Labour would have dominated in London and parts of its environs; the SNP would have captured every seat in Scotland; and the Conservatives would have been wiped out. In fact, many voters would not have cast the same votes as they did. For example, the anti-Brexit parties could probably have agreed joint candidates much more easily than under the actual system, helping them to secure some extra seats. But the Brexit Party would very likely still have scooped up most seats on less than a third of the vote. Continue reading

The European Parliament elections: seven things you need to know

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Nominations for election to the European Parliament closed on Thursday. We now know which parties will be contesting the elections (if they happen), and who those parties have selected to stand for them in each region of the UK. The Unit’s Alan Renwick offers a brief guide to how the elections will work and what we can expect to learn from them.

With little sign of progress in the Brexit talks between the government and the Labour Party, UK participation in next month’s European Parliament elections looks increasingly likely. The parties have nominated their candidates and begun to launch their campaigns. Much is being said about how the electoral system will shape the outcome, but not all of it is accurate. This post provides a quick guide to the key points and reaches two main conclusions. First, the system will disadvantage small parties: in particular, the anti-Brexit parties will be punished for their disunity. Second, anyone wanting to read the results as a proxy second Brexit referendum will need to do so with great care.

1. The system is proportional…

The UK uses a system of proportional representation (PR) for European Parliament elections. To be precise, it uses two different systems. England, Scotland, and Wales use a list-based form of PR, which was introduced to replace the old First Past the Post system in 1999. This is based on 11 regions, each electing between three and ten MEPs. Each party puts up a list of candidates and voters choose one party’s list. The seats are allocated to the parties in each region in proportion to the votes that they have won.

Northern Ireland, by contrast, has used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of PR ever since the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979. Each party again puts up a slate of candidates. But voters rank individual candidates in order of preference, and these votes are counted and transferred according to the preferences expressed until the three seats available have been filled.

Proportional systems make it easier than under First Past the Post for small parties to secure seats. Last time around, for example, the Green Party won three seats with 7.87% of the vote, whereas in 1989, under First Past the Post, it famously captured 14.5% of the vote but no seats at all.

2. …but not all that proportional

‘Proportional’ systems vary in just how proportional they are. In fact, neither of the systems used in the UK is especially so, for two reasons. First, the number of seats available in each region constrains how far it is possible to allocate seats proportionally. In the North East of England, for example, where there are only three seats, it is clearly impossible for any more than three parties to win representation. Even the largest region – the South East, with ten seats – is quite small in seat terms, making it impossible to reflect the pattern of votes perfectly in the allocation of seats. Continue reading

Is there time for another referendum before the new Brexit deadline?

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The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of Brexit news. Campaigners for a no-deal outcome have made themselves heard—as have campaigners for a second vote. But the new Halloween Brexit deadline is just over six months away. This raises the question: is there time to hold another referendum before we leave? And would it be possible to conduct such a vote in a proper manner? Alan Renwick addresses the key questions and concludes that a properly conducted referendum is preferable to a speedy one.

In a report published last autumn, my colleagues and I at the Unit calculated that it takes at least 22 weeks—roughly five months—to hold a referendum in the UK. That allows 11 weeks for the necessary legislation to go through parliament and the Electoral Commission to assess the proposed question, one week to get ready, and ten weeks for the campaign. If parliament started this process today, a vote could be held on 26th September. So long as the wheels were set in motion by the European Parliament elections on 23rd May, a referendum could go ahead on 24th October; the last Thursday that gives time for the result to be declared before the deadline.

So the simple answer to the question posed above is, yes, there is time for a referendum by October.

But does pushing for a referendum at breakneck speed still make sense? Back when we were writing our report, the first question everyone asked was whether a vote could be held before Brexit day on 29th March. Once that timetable had become untenable, the question was whether the ballot could be organised by 23rd May or 30th June, so that the UK would not have to participate in the European Parliament elections. If a vote is being contemplated for September or October, that Rubicon will long have been crossed.

Crucially, EU leaders have signalled that the Halloween deadline will not be final if a decision-making process is ongoing by then. In other words, starting the referendum process could itself provide Britain with more time to deliberate. Businesses are desperate for some kind of resolution. But a well-run referendum would produce a more robust outcome. Taking a little extra time to ensure that would be worthwhile.

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