Post-Brexit trade deals with the EU and the US will define our future. But MPs could be left without a say
MPs who value Parliamentary sovereignty, and who understand the need for democratic accountability for post-Brexit trade deals, should support Caroline Lucas’s amendment, writes David Lawrence
Last autumn saw a series of showdowns between the Executive and Parliament: the Benn Act, Johnson’s attempted prorogation, delays to his Withdrawal Agreement Bill and ultimately the calling of another snap election were all symptomatic of a battle which, aided by John Bercow, pitted MPs against the Government of the day.
This battle is now over. Since his huge victory in the election, Johnson has removed all Parliamentary scrutiny provisions in his new Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), which begins its committee stages in the Commons tomorrow. This means MPs won’t get a say on the UK-EU Future Relationship.
The previous WAB’s Clause 31 was essentially a compromise clause designed to reassure MPs that they would not be excluded from the Brexit process. The Clause would have given MPs a vote on the initial negotiating objectives, regular reporting during negotiations and a vote on the final deal. This went far beyond the low level of oversight normally afforded to Parliament during trade negotiations.
However the new WAB removes all of these provisions. A group of cross-party MPs, led by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, have tabled an amendment (New Clause 6) which would give MPs a vote on the UK-EU deal as well as increased transparency and scrutiny. If selected, the amendment will be debated on Wednesday, but as things stand no Conservative MPs have put their name to it. The centrality of the WAB to this Government’s project means amendments will be heavily whipped.
The problem with removing scrutiny provisions, aside from the usual concerns about democratic accountability and transparency, is that it sets a worrying precedent. Many civil society organisations and the general public are wary about Johnson’s plans for a trade deal with Donald Trump, which could lower food standards, constrain action on climate change and affect our health services. If MPs are left out of the UK-EU Future Relationship, it seems unlikely that the Government will grant them a vote on a US trade deal – or indeed other upcoming deals with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the Trans-Pacific area.
The Commons had unprecedented success in increasing its powers between the elections of 2017 to 2019: never before had Parliament taken charge of international treaty negotiations by mandating the Executive to negotiate in a certain way, but the Benn Act did exactly that. Never before had a new Prime Minister suffered so many defeats, or had the Commons taken control of the order paper to stop the Government of the day achieving its raison d’être.
With Johnson’s victory in December, this era has come to an end: the irony of Brexit is that, although many voted for Parliament to take back sovereignty over UK affairs, MEPs in Brussels will have more of a say over the UK-EU Future Relationship than British MPs. And the irony of Johnson’s large majority is that it decreases the amount of influence Tory MPs have over the Brexit process, compared to if the victory had been narrow.
MPs who value Parliamentary sovereignty, and who understand the need for democratic accountability for post-Brexit trade, should support Lucas’s amendment. The amendment is not about frustrating Brexit – it would be impossible in this Parliament anyway – but is about safeguarding a process which ensures there is transparency and democracy built into our treaty-making system.
The UK lags far behind the EU and US when it comes to democratic oversight of trade policy, and Johnson’s WAB was an opportunity to change this. Instead, unless Lucas’s amendment gets unexpected support from backbench Conservatives, MPs will not get a say over what is undoubtedly our most important trading relationship, and probably the defining policy issue of our time.
David Lawrence is senior political advisor at the Trade Justice Movement, a network of nearly 60 civil society organisations campaigning for trade rules that work for people and planet.