On 9 January, the Trade Bill successfully passed its second reading stage in the House of Commons. Intended to regulate the implementation of international trade agreements after Britain leaves the EU, it is one of the most important pieces of Brexit-related legislation currently going through parliament. In this post, which originally appeared on the website of the Hansard Society, Dr. Brigid Fowler argues that the role of parliament in influencing the drafting and agreement of British trade treaties has the potential to be weakened, not strengthened by Brexit should this bill become law.
The Trade Bill, which had its second reading debate on Tuesday, is one of the most important pieces of Brexit legislation. It is a framework Bill enabling the UK to implement the non-tariff elements of future international trade agreements, where those agreements are with states with which the EU has signed a trade agreement by the date the UK leaves.
The Bill’s broad aim is the same as that of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill – which has its report stage consideration in the House of Commons on 16–17 January – and indeed of the government’s overall Brexit approach: to minimise the disruption to business and consumers at the moment when the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019.
But, as regards trade agreements, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on its own cannot do the job, because capturing the provisions of trade agreements that the EU might sign right up to Brexit day may require domestic implementing powers that last beyond those in that Bill.
There are two scenarios for the way in which parliament’s handling of Brexit affects its position in the UK’s democratic system – one in which Brexit strengthens the executive, and one in which parliament emerges enhanced. Which of these prevails could have an effect long after the UK leaves the EU, writes the Hansard Society’s Brigid Fowler. If parliament has a ‘good Brexit’, it could strengthen its standing in relation to both the executive and the public.
The UK’s vote to leave the EU was ‘a vote to restore … our parliamentary democracy’, the Prime Minister declared in her January 17 Brexit speech. Theresa May suggested that the UK’s possession of ‘the principle of parliamentary sovereignty [as] the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement’ was among the reasons the country decided it cannot continue to operate inside a supranational framework. And yet this reaffirmation of the traditional role of the UK parliament, delivered as part of one of the most important prime ministerial policy announcements in a generation, was delivered in a building managed by the Foreign Office, not at Westminster.
The irony has not been lost on many politicians and commentators reacting to Mrs May’s speech, including the Leader of the Opposition. The disjunction seemed to encapsulate one of the central tensions in the Brexit process, namely its potential to either expand or undermine the role of parliament in the UK’s democratic system. Especially now that the arguments about process that surrounded the Prime Minister’s speech have been followed by the Supreme Court’s ruling on the scope of the government’s prerogative powers, they have refocused attention on the implications of Brexit for the legislature.
Regardless of positions on Brexit, and the type of Brexit the Prime Minister has now said she will pursue, the EU referendum and withdrawal process represents a significant challenge to the UK’s traditional system of representative democracy. The UK is now embarked on one of the most consequential policies of its post-1945 history without this ever having been the policy of a government formed as a result of a general election. Before the referendum, EU withdrawal was the official policy of only two of the ten parties represented in the House of Commons (not counting Sinn Féin), mustering nine MPs between them (eight DUP and one UKIP). Taking Conservative, Labour and UUP splits into account, only 158 of 650 MPs – 24% – are reckoned to have backed ‘Leave’. The proportion of peers backing Brexit was probably even lower.