Not so fast! Westminster's (continuous) oversight of European affairs post-Brexit

Policy brief
12 April 2019

The UK will not be able to make a clean break from the EU and its laws post-Brexit. Westminster should develop new scrutiny structures which would enable parliamentarians to better navigate yet unknown post-Brexit reality.

  • Brexit has changed the work of British parliamentarians. Before the 2016 referendum MPs were rarely drawn into European affairs. But since the vote to leave, the UK’s relationship with the EU has left British lawmakers with little time to think of anything else.
  • Westminster has also become more assertive vis-à-vis the government. This is rare in British politics because MPs almost always follow the instructions of their party leaders. But the government does not have a majority in parliament and the issue of the UK’s relationship with the EU has cut across party lines; lots of MPs – including Conservatives – have obstructed the government’s plan for exiting the EU.
  • Parliament’s confrontation with the government over Brexit could enhance its oversight of EU matters in the future. But those in power need to learn lessons from past mistakes. The government needs to understand that parliamentary scrutiny is not a zero sum game and parliament is not the enemy: it can often bring about improvements in government policy, or give it added legitimacy through its endorsement. A government that has parliamentary backing for its negotiating objectives represents a persuasive force in the eyes of the EU-27.
  • The UK will not be able to make a clean break from the EU and its laws, irrespective of whether it leaves the EU with or without a deal. Westminster will still want to assess EU legislation; but its existing structures are ill-suited to deal with that task.
  • Today, the Brexit-related work of the House of Commons is divided between different committees. This can lead to duplication or contradictory recommendations on the same issues and makes it easier for the government to cherry-pick the ideas it likes and ignore the rest.
  • The House of Commons should abolish the European scrutiny committee and concentrate all EU and Brexit scrutiny in the hands of the exiting the EU committee, which was created to monitor the work of the government’s department for exiting the EU (DExEU). But that committee should evolve into a new European affairs committee if the government decides to abolish DExEU.
  • In parallel to holding the government to account, Westminster should strengthen its own network of contacts with national parliaments in other EU member-states and with the EU institutions in Brussels. The government has pledged that it will co-operate closely with Westminster in the next phases of Brexit, but in the past it backtracked on its promises – and parliamentarians need a back-up plan.
  • Whether MPs like it or not, leaving the EU is just the beginning of a long process of defining the UK’s place in Europe. Better oversight of EU affairs will make it easier for Westminster to navigate this uncharted territory. 

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