With the post-Brexit trade pact now formally ratified, EU and UK lawmakers must take the lead in rebuilding the cross-Channel relationship, writes John McStravick.
Last week, the curtains closed on the latest act in the Brexit saga. Following the near-unanimous approval of the European Parliament, the European Council finally ratified the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) on Thursday.
More than four years after the British public voted for their country to leave the European Union, Brexit has been delivered and a newly negotiated relationship between the EU and UK exists.
Tempting as it is to want to see the back of the Brexit process, it is important that this latest act is not the last. Instead, the Westminster and Brussels must now use their new relationship as a foundation to build on.
As Boris Johnson acknowledged in 2016: “We [the UK] are leaving the EU; we are not leaving Europe”. Britain and the EU remain each other’s largest trading partners.
As we heard often during negotiations, the two face many of the same challenges – domestically and globally – and hold the same fundamental values. But effective cooperation cannot be assumed on the basis of mutual interests alone.
If the UK and EU want to fulfil the promise of continued collaboration then they must work at it through regular and structured dialogue. To this effect, the TCA states that the British and European Parliaments “may establish a Parliamentary Partnership Assembly”. It is crucially important that MEPs, MPs, and peers take advantage of the opportunity.
There are at least three important reasons to establish an EU-UK joint parliamentary assembly.
Firstly, UK-EU relations are at or close to an all-time low.
Trust has been severely damaged by months of fractious negotiations, the European Commission’s threat to block vaccines going to Northern Ireland, and the UK government’s refusal to respect commitments made in the Withdrawal Agreement (first through the UK Internal Market Bill and, more recently, in unilaterally extending the grace periods for goods moving GB-NI, prompting infringement proceedings from the EU).
Alternative channels of communication are needed to rebuild a strong partnership and regain trust.
Secondly, there is a danger that the relationship between the EU and UK will become shallow and transactional. The TCA is a comparatively ‘thin’ deal, heavily focused on trade matters, partly as a consequence of the two side’s restrictive and incompatible red lines and partly due to the short negotiating time frame.
There is plenty of engagement scheduled in the coming weeks and months, but mostly for officials at a technical policy level. If politicians want to discuss any of the many important matters outside the scope of the TCA, or simply to grow diplomatic networks, then they will need a forum to do so.
Thirdly, a joint parliamentary assembly might use powers – already granted to it in the TCA – to request information from the newly established Partnership Council and its sub-committees.
This cannot replace the vital, ongoing scrutiny already being performed by standing committees in the UK and European parliaments, but it can help demand more accountability and transparency from a new governance architecture that has been widely criticised for its opacity.
Similarly, a parliamentary partnership assembly can and should be used to engage with the Civil Society Forum, also envisaged by the TCA.
Ultimately, it is for parliamentarians in Brussels and Westminster to decide what form a parliamentary partnership assembly should take, who will attend it, and what precisely it will do. What is important is that the initiative is taken to create a body and that, in the knowledge that relationships atrophy father than they are built, it is done sooner rather than later.
There have been some warm words already, including from the European Parliament President David Sassoli and the speakers of both the House of Commons and House of Lords. But good ideas can be killed off by inaction as much as my opposition, and the UK government and EU institutions must support their parliaments in engaging with one another.
Doing so is essential to fulfilling the promise of continued partnership, and is in the interests of European and British citizens, regardless of whether they supported remain or leave.