The risk that we will wake up on May 1 to find we have a no-deal Brexit after all has not disappeared. The deadline for the ratification by the European Parliament of the trade deal between the European Union and the United Kingdom was due to be February 28. But Parliament postponed the deadline to April 30. It did this because it felt it could not trust the UK to implement the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) — as the deal is formally known as — properly and as agreed and ratified.
This distrust arose because the implementation of the Ireland and Northern Ireland Protocol of the withdrawal agreement — the treaty that took the UK out of the EU — had been unilaterally changed by the British government. If a party to an international agreement takes it upon itself to unilaterally alter a deal, the whole basis of international agreements with that party disappears.
Brexit Trade Deal Brings Temporary, If Not Lasting, Relief
The matters in dispute between the UK and the EU — the protocol and COVID-19 vaccines — remain unresolved. The European Union is taking the United Kingdom to court over the protocol, but the court is unlikely to decide anything before the new deadline of April 30.
In the normal course of events, the TCA between the UK and the EU would be discussed in the relevant committee of the European Parliament, before coming to the plenary session of Parliament for ratification. The next meeting of the Committee on International Trade is due to take place on April 14-15, and the agenda for the meeting has been published. It includes a discussion on the enforcement of trade agreements, the general system of preferences and, significantly, trade-related aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It makes no mention of the TCA with the UK.
Trade-related aspects of the pandemic will inevitably include a discussion on vaccine protectionism, which is a highly contentious issue between the EU and the UK that has poisoned relations and led to bitter commentary in the media. The fact that the committee has not included a discussion of the TCA with the UK on its agenda for what may well be the only meeting it will have before the April deadline is potentially very significant.
Ratifying the Trade Deal
The TCA is a 1,246-page document, and its contents, if ratified, will take precedence over EU law. To ratify such an agreement without proper scrutiny in the relevant committees could be seen as a dereliction of the European Parliament’s responsibility of scrutiny. We should not forget the scrutiny that was applied to the much more modest EU trade agreement with Canada. The same goes for the deal with Mercosur states (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay).
Furthermore, the TCA would, if ratified, set up a network of committees to oversee its implementation. These will meet in private and their work will diminish the ongoing oversight by the European Parliament of a host of issues affecting all 27 EU member states. The TCA also contains a system of dispute-resolution mechanisms that will quickly be overwhelmed by work. The TCA has many items of unfinished business, on which the European Parliament will want to express a view. It is hard to see how any of this can be done before the end of April.
The UK government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson has adopted a deliberately confrontational style in its negotiations with the European Union. The more rows there are, the happier the support base that Johnson is seeking to rally for his Conservative Party. Johnson’s European strategy has always been about electoral politics, not economic performance. This has led to almost complete confusion between the British government and the EU.
If the European Parliament ratifies the TCA without there having been seen to be a satisfactory outcome to the EU-UK negotiations about the Ireland and Northern Ireland Protocol and over the export of vaccines, it will be a political setback for Parliament and a source of immense satisfaction for Johnson.
Yet one should never underestimate the role emotion can play in politics. The entire Brexit saga is a story of repeated triumphs of emotion over reason — and the European Parliament is not immune to this ailment. Boris Johnson could be pushing his luck a bit far this time.
*[A version of this article was posted on John Bruton’s blog.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.