Brexit: Legal Position of Withdrawal Agreement - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:03 pm on 3rd December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice) 7:03 pm, 3rd December 2018

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for their observations. I shall begin by saying clearly that I am not going to comment upon leaks to the media that may or may not have been made and may or may not be accurate, and I am not going to comment upon any correspondence that the Attorney-General may or may not have had with members of the Cabinet. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, I observe that the issue of contempt is one for the Speaker and Members of the other place, and I make no further observation on that point.

The steps taken by the Attorney-General and the Government in respect of this matter are consistent with and correspond to the undertakings that were given in the other place by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

A great deal has been said about the Northern Ireland protocol and the backstop. I begin by observing that it is the intention of the Government that the backstop should never be required and that during the implementation period we will engage in negotiation for an agreement that will mean that the backstop itself is not required. But of course there remains the possibility that it will be required; albeit it is one of two alternatives, because the alternative is to extend the transition or implementation period.

Let us look at the backstop itself. The noble Lord is quite right to say that, on the face of it, there is no unilateral right to withdraw from the backstop. That is quite clear in the terms of the protocol to the withdrawal agreement. But that is not the end of the story by any means. There have been various suggestions that somehow the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, will be locked into the backstop indefinitely, for ever. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, talked about the single keyholder being the European Union, which at its whim will simply decide to leave the door locked and walk away with us in the backstop for ever and a day. That is simply unsound as an analysis of the legal position.

Under the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, and, in particular, Article 2, there is an express obligation on the parties to use their best endeavours to reach an agreement that will not require the maintenance of the backstop. The term “best endeavours” is well worn in both domestic and international law and imposes a strong obligation upon the parties to conduct themselves in such a way that they can realistically and reasonably achieve an alternative settlement. If that obligation is not obtempered or met by one or other of the parties simply because it wants to leave the backstop in place indefinitely, there is a dispute resolution mechanism. It is not just about acting in good faith or about whether or not the backstop is necessary; it is whether or not the backstop continues to be necessary because one or other party has not used its best endeavours to adopt or agree an alternative arrangement. That would be subject to arbitration in terms of the withdrawal agreement.

Pursuant to Article 178 of the withdrawal agreement, if there was a failure on the part of a party to obtemper the ruling of the arbitration panel, which can be arrived at by a majority, there would be the right on a temporary basis to suspend implementation of a part of the agreement that was being held in place simply because of a breach of that obligation of good faith. But it goes further than that. In the event that there was a persistent failure on the part of, for example, the EU to obtemper its obligation of best endeavours and to adopt what was plainly a suitable alternative arrangement for the Northern Ireland protocol, one would have regard to Article 60 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which provides that a material breach of a bilateral treaty by one of the parties entitles the other to invoke the breach as a ground for terminating the treaty or suspending its operation in whole or in part. You then look at the definition of a material breach.

So this is not a case of being locked in with the EU holding the key. It has clear, express and unambiguous legal obligations to obtemper in the context of the Northern Ireland protocol, and if it fails to do so then there are remedies available. I reiterate that it is not a case of one or other party having the unilateral right simply to walk away from the protocol. That would not be appropriate in any form of international agreement. There is a mechanism whereby the agreement cannot be abused by either party and whereby if it is abused, there can be a resolution involving termination or suspension of a particular provision.

Candidly, I do not believe that two bodies such as the United Kingdom and the European Union are going to find themselves in a situation in which, over a period of time, one or other is not going to act in good faith in the field of its international obligations and is not going to discharge its obligations to use its best endeavours to arrive at an alternative agreement.

I hope that that goes some way to meeting the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and the noble Lord, but I emphasise that, ultimately, I am seeking to address the legal issues that arise in the context of the withdrawal agreement and, like the Attorney-General, I am perfectly prepared to answer any question from this House on the law—albeit they may be better informed by other and better lawyers inside and outside this House. I have no difficulty in responding, in so far as I can, to legal issues raised with regard to the withdrawal agreement. The Attorney-General took exactly the same position in the House of Commons. He recognised his duty not only in government but to the House to give such legal assistance as he could to the House to resolve any issues that may arise in this context. That is where we stand.

I just add this. After 45 years, clearly there are issues to be worked out between the parties, and the withdrawal agreement will allow for the necessary time and legal means for that process to unfold in an orderly, peaceful and sensible way. I reiterate that I am at the disposal of the House to answer questions of law, although they might be better answered by other Members of the House. Thank you.