[9th Allotted Day]

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 1:58 pm on 15th January 2019.

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Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security) 1:58 pm, 15th January 2019

I have great respect for the hon. Lady, but I fundamentally disagree with her final remark. There is a commitment to the Good Friday agreement among Labour Members. My constituency has great pride in the agreement because the peace talks were chaired by my predecessor—we have great respect for it and want to protect it.

Let me be clear why we cannot support the bespoke customs union within the backstop: it would have no proper governance; firms based in Britain, rather than Northern Ireland, would be outside the single market facing barriers to trade; and the protections for workers and the environment would be unenforceable non-regression clauses that would see the UK fall behind over time. The arrangement falls far short of what Labour has argued for.

What other routes are there to an exit from the backstop? I asked the Attorney General about international treaties that the UK has no unilateral right to terminate. His response was to direct me to the Vienna convention on the law of treaties. Even if it applied—and it only applies between states—the Attorney General knows this is clutching at straws. First, it is said, we could argue that the EU was not using “best endeavours” to complete our future trade agreement and that that constituted a “material breach” under article 60 of the convention. The Attorney General has said, in relation to article 2.1 of the backstop protocol, that

“it is the duty of the parties to negotiate a superseding agreement. That must be done using best endeavours, pursuant to Article 184 of the Withdrawal agreement. This is subject also to the duty of good faith, which is both implied by international law, and expressly created by Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement”.

But he has also said:

“The duty of good faith and to use best endeavours is a legally enforceable duty. There is no doubt that it is difficult to prove.”

Again, those are the words of the Attorney General. He knows that that is the case.

Secondly, we could try to argue that there had been a “fundamental change of circumstances” under article 62 of the Vienna convention, but we could not credibly argue that entering the backstop was such a change in circumstances when the situation is clearly set out in the withdrawal agreement in such a way. To say that a scenario we are all aware of and debating now represents a fundamental departure would not wash with anyone, as the Attorney General knows. It is not so much an airlock as a padlock, and it is a padlock with two key holders, of which we are only one.

What changed over Christmas? What has been achieved by delaying the vote? The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told us on the morning of the vote that it was

“definitely, 100%, going to happen”.

We all know what happened after that—it is one of many incidents during this process that has led many of us to disbelieve so much that the Government say. The Prime Minister said in her statement later that day:

“I have heard those concerns and I will now do everything I possibly can to secure further assurances”.

The Leader of the House said:

“The Prime Minister has been clear that the vote will take place when she believes she has the legal assurances that Parliament needs that the backstop will not be permanent.”—[Official Report, 10 December 2018;
Vol. 651, c. 25-84.]

The International Trade Secretary, went even further, saying that it would be

“very difficult to support the deal without changes to the backstop”.

He was not sure that the Cabinet would agree for it to be put to the House of Commons.

What actually happened? The Prime Minister went to the European Council but could not persuade leaders to give her the conclusions she wanted. The Christmas break came and went. We got a document on commitments to Northern Ireland that did nothing to change the legal text and then, yesterday, letters appeared between the Prime Minister on the one hand, and the President of the European Council and the President of the Commission on the other.