Power to notify withdrawal from the EU

Part of European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:00 pm on 13th March 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 5:00 pm, 13th March 2017

I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about amendment 1, but I wish to speak about amendment 2. The operative subsection is subsection (4) which states—I want to remind the House as it is material to what I am about to say:

“The prior approval of…Parliament shall…be required in relation to any decision by the Prime Minister that the United Kingdom shall leave the European Union without an agreement”.

I have already argued in past debates exactly what my right hon. Friend argued today—namely, that if that subsection were to have its intended effect, it would be inimical to the interests of this country, because it would have the undoubted effect of providing a massive incentive for our EU counterparts to give us the worst possible agreement. I agree with him about that. However, I think that the situation is worse—far worse—than he described, because the operative subsection is deeply deficient as a matter of law. The reason for that is not just the one that Lord Pannick admitted, or half-admitted, in the House of Lords, but because under very plausible circumstances this subsection will not have anything like its intended effect. Let me briefly illustrate why that is the case.

Article 50 of the treaty on the European Union is, for once in treaties, entirely clear. Paragraph 3 of the article states:

“The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question…two years after the notification…unless the European Council
unanimously decides to extend this period.”

Let us imagine that what the Secretary of State, the Government, all my hon. Friends and, I suspect, all Opposition Members hope will not be the case—namely, that the negotiations for a proper comprehensive free trade agreement break down—actually happens. We all hope that will not happen, but we cannot preclude the possibility that it will happen. If it does happen, I think all Members on both sides of the House must have the emotional intelligence to recognise that in all probability that would be under circumstances of some acrimony.

How likely is it that under such circumstances, with agreement having broken down in some acrimony, the European Council would be able to achieve a unanimous agreement to allow the UK to remain a member beyond the two-year period? I speculate that it is very unlikely. If we assume that that were to occur, we need to ask ourselves what would actually happen under those circumstances. One thing can be predicted with certainty: there would be litigation. The litigation would ask, ultimately, the Supreme Court to decide the question, “What has happened here? Has the Prime Minister made a decision, or has the Prime Minister not made a decision?” That could be decided in one of two ways. I rather think that Members on both sides of the House would agree with me that the Supreme Court must decide either that the Prime Minister has made the decision or that the Prime Minister has not made the decision.

Let us suppose for a moment that the Supreme Court decides that the Prime Minister has not made a decision, because it has been made instead by the European Council—a perfectly plausible outcome of the Court’s proceedings. In that case, subsection (4) is totally inoperable. It has no effect whatsoever, because what it does, purportedly, is to prevent the Prime Minister from making a decision without a vote. If the Prime Minister has, in the ruling of the Court, made no decision, it is impossible for her to have made a decision without a vote; therefore, the law has been conformed with, and Parliament is not given any ability to vote on the matter.