The European Parliament has voted to ratify the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA). It did so  despite a litany of reservations. But why?

Today, the European Parliament gave its consent to the so-called Brexit deal, formally known as the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). There was an overwhelming majority of 660 in favour, 5 against, and 32 abstentions. The agreement now only needs to be adopted by the European Council, when it will formally enter into force.

It entailed  a simple yes/no vote under the Consent procedure, but as with all things Brexit, it wasn’t really that simple.

The TCA  protects both the UK and the EU against a “no -deal” economic cliff edge, but the reason behind the European Parliament’s  almost unanimous adoption of the agreement goes deeper than mere economics.  The  motivation behind  the  consent vote was  political. There were many  warm words from MEPs about the how the Agreement provides a return path for the UK, a way to re-set its relationship with European friends and neighbours, but underlying those words was an inherent distrust of the Johnson government. This appears to have been the deciding factor.  

It has to do with concerns about divergence, and  legal leverage  against the UK government acting in ways that undermine the Single Market or the Trade and Cooperation Agreement as a whole. For example, if it were to move  away  from EU standards in trade, the environment, and  human rights; or if it tries again to undermine the Northern Ireland Protocol. .  

Johnson’s government, with its “I don’t care” message to do as it pleases and play fast and loose with international law, as for example, in the Internal Market Bill, has destroyed the credibility that Britain once had as a reputable player on the international stage.  The EU is concerned about how the current UK government’s intransigence and its dishonesty  will translate into non-compliance with the agreement  - an agreement that the Prime Minister, Boris  Johnson signed. The threats to break international law act as a siren warning for what might happen in future.

The agreement was concluded ‘in a context of divergence’ according to David McAllister,  Chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee (AFET). In other words,  the UK government explicitly wanted the possibility to move away from EU standards. This is a risk for the EU, where ‘divergence’ is code for ‘lowering’ standards.  

The European Parliament has uncovered many concerns about the agreement in the course of the scrutiny by 15 different committees. These issues are detailed in the Appendices to the formal Consent decision (Recommendation on the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement).  They are reiterated in the cross-party Motion for a Resolution on the Outcome of the EU-UK negotiations

This Motion for a Resolution reflects the detailed scrutiny of the agreement by the European Parliament. Even in the short time it had – a little less than four months – it has been able to look over the whole agreement and vast range of public policy. By  comparison  there was almost nil scrutiny in the Westminster Parliament.

The Motion for a Resolution  addresses the  importance of customs checks and standards  compliance for goods,  as well as air transport standards, environmental standards, plus financial services regulation and the possibility for money laundering. These matter to the EU because it is about protecting the Single Market and ensuring that consumers in EU countries can rely on goods being compliant.

Worryingly, the Motion mentions the possibility of the UK choosing to drop the European Convention on Human Rights.  Despite Michael Gove saying that the UK won’t do so, in evidence given to a UK Parliament Select Committee,  ( See here Q223)   there are worries that the government’s word will not be honoured.

 Other specific issues mentioned are the exclusion of the UK from the Erasmus+ scheme for young people, and the adequacy agreement on data protection.

Under normal circumstances, the Parliament would not ratify an agreement where there were so many risks and loose threads. The difference here is  the perceived untrustworthiness of the UK government.

The  Trade and Cooperation Agreement  offers ways that the Johnson government can be held to account if  it again acts to  breach the agreement – an agreement that it chose, and it signed.  In effect, it is a damage limitation exercise for the EU -  an insurance policy against the UK government deviating from it has agreed.

The TCA provides for a governance  and oversight framework, including a joint Parliamentary Committee, and a plethora of sub-committees. These committees will facilitate ongoing discussions to iron out problems and report on new developments.  In that sense, the TCA is not an end-point, but a live process.

The TCA also offers a  toolbox containing number of legal instruments that enable the enforcement of compliance with the agreement. Those instruments include trade sanctions, and could, for example,  mean the UK being deprived of market access.  It could terminate aspects of the agreement. These are legal levers to get the UK government to comply with the agreement that it wanted and it signed. If the Johnson government fails to  respect the TCA, there  are options for retaliatory action. This appears to be the underlying reason why the European Parliament has adopted the agreement, despite its many reservations.

The European Parliament will keep a close eye on the implementation of the agreement. It will be kept informed by the Commission of the ongoing discussions with the UK in the new oversight committees.

In the debate before the vote yesterday,  some members of the European Parliament were quite bullish about their determination that  such retaliatory action would  be triggered if the UK plays foul.  Using phrases like “not  a blank cheque”, the European Parliament has made it clear that UK government divergence or acts to undermine the TCA will be taken seriously.  

It’s a scenario that may be necessary to bring a mendacious government into line, but hardly one to be relished.

The hope is that the TCA will  provide a long term route for  UK to turn the corner and once again take on the mantle of a responsible, and respected, country.


This article is my analysis of the debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday 27 April 

I've been analysing debates and the legislative process in the European Parliament for 12 years. Most of my research is about tech policy and content online, and I've been  following the development of the Brexit agreement, with a focus on those issues that affect my other research.   Please do browse my other articles on this website. 

This article is available free of charge, under a Creative Commons licence: if you cite it, please acknowledge Monica Horten as the author and link back to this page. If you would like to re-publish it, please contact me.