The European Parliament: A tough trade negotiator?

Katharina Meissner,
Lise-Meitner Postdoctoral Researcher,
Centre for European Integration Research (EIF), University of Vienna,

Trade negotiations have been high on the agenda of the European Union (EU) for the past decade, and they will remain a priority in the future. One example is the United Kingdom’s (UK) withdrawal from the EU and the upcoming talks on a future EU-UK agreement. Over the past decade, the European Parliament has become an important interlocutor in the EU’s trade negotiations and it promises to be a tough negotiator in the upcoming EU-UK talks.

A good example for the European Parliament’s expansion of powers are the EU’s highly politicized trade agreement negotiations with Canada and the United States on CETA and TTIP. In these negotiations, civil society was particularly concerned about lacking transparency and the limited role of parliaments.

Yet, in fact, the European Parliament’s strong involvement in the CETA and TTIP negotiations was unprecedented. One reason for Parliament’s heavy engagement was the new legal basis that came with the Lisbon Treaty. According to the EU’s latest treaty, the European Parliament must be informed throughout the negotiations and it is entitled to ratify international agreements such as CETA or TTIP. At the same time, members of Parliament interpreted their right to be informed in such an expansive way that they successfully asked for access to all negotiation documents, including the European Commission’s negotiation mandate – a request the European Parliament has made for decades.

The informal rights of Parliament in the CETA and TTIP negotiations went far beyond the formal treaty basis. Next to accessing all negotiation documents, members of Parliament asked for a debriefing before and after each bargaining round with Canada and the United States. Moreover, the European Parliament managed to influence the substance of the EU-Canada trade agreement. One example is the revised investor-state dispute settlement mechanism of the CETA. A crucial driver for the revised mechanism was pressure exerted by the European Parliament. On top, parliamentarians moved first and organized bilateral talks with the EU’s negotiating partners. With the United States, for instance, the European Parliament initiated own trade talks accompanying the official negotiations and, thus, secured for itself an informal role as a negotiator.

Research shows that the European Parliament’s informal powers, once established, remain in place and will be further expanded. This is exactly what happened in the negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Early on in the Brexit process, the European Parliament appointed Guy Verhofstadt as its coordinator – a position that resembles the European Commission’s chief negotiator. He was part of the Brexit Steering Group set up to monitor the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Guy Verhofstadt was in charge of coordinating between Parliament and other EU actors like the Council or the European Commission, and he pursued direct talks with the negotiating partners from the UK. Hence, Parliament built on and extended the informal powers it had acquired in the preceding CETA and TTIP talks.

The upcoming negotiations on a future EU-UK trade agreement promise a significant involvement of the European Parliament. Already in February 2020, Parliament issued a resolution making it clear what its red lines in the negotiations are. In this document, Parliament threatens to decline ratification on any agreement that will not include strong safeguards and level playing field provisions. The resolution can be understood as Parliament’s negotiation mandate. Formally, the European Parliament, other than the Council, has no right to authorize the European Commission’s negotiation mandate. Hence, the resolution presents an attempt of yet a further informal institutional prerogative which the European Parliament established. On top, members of Parliament organized a ‘UK contact group’, headed by David McAllister, which will coordinate with the European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and liaise with the UK. In other words, the European Parliament has already positioned itself to pursue bargaining rounds with the UK alongside the European Commission’s negotiators.

In the trade politics of the EU, the European Parliament was clearly successfully in empowering its formal and informal institutional powers. By now, it is involved at all stages of trade negotiations: by issuing a resolution similar to a negotiation mandate at the very start of trade talks; by being an active negotiator during the talks through a chief coordinator and a parliamentary contact group; and by leveraging its veto right at the conclusion stage of trade agreements. Hence, we can expect an extraordinarily strong European Parliament in the upcoming EU-UK negotiations, which will not shy away from using the full potential of its institutional weight.


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