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Withdrawal Agreement: Attorney General’s legal opinion on the Joint Instrument and Unilateral Declaration - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:10 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice) 6:10 pm, 12th March 2019

My Lords, I am obliged to noble Lords for their contributions. Referring to the observations of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, I will perhaps begin where he finished. If the noble and learned Lord was to revisit his study of early Italian Renaissance sculpture, he might be reminded that the fig leaf can cover some very important bits. Therefore, one must bear in mind that the use of analogies is not always entirely helpful.

In paragraph 19 of his opinion, the Attorney-General set out his view that the legal remains unchanged. But that was not the question that was being addressed. The issue that exercised people was one of an extreme nature, which one would, frankly, never anticipate arising where parties have entered into an international treaty in good faith and intend to discharge their obligations under that treaty in good faith. As I observed in a previous debate, if you simply do not trust the person with whom you are contracting or entering into a treaty, there is little point in doing so—you would not proceed in the belief that they would ever finally discharge their obligations. Here, however, we proceed in the confident belief that their obligations will be addressed and met.

It is therefore important that, in the context of the further agreement, the parties have fixed a date of December 2020 by which to use their best endeavours to arrive at an alternative to the backstop. It is in these circumstances that it is considered appropriate, as the Attorney-General observed in paragraph 7 of his opinion, to note that the provisions now represent materially new legal obligations and commitments which mean that unconscionable behaviour on the part of the EU, and failure to fulfil its obligation to seek suitable and alternative practical means of dealing with the backstop, would have to be properly addressed in the context of the arbitration provisions.

It is in that context that I come to address the questions posed by the noble and learned Lord, which touch upon each other. He began by asking how, if there is bad faith by the European Union, we would prove it. There are circumstances in which it would become apparent that the European Union was intent upon seeking to trap the United Kingdom in the backstop, notwithstanding the provision of alternative arrangements. But let us be clear: one does not anticipate or foresee that that would ever occur.

On that point, I note that the backstop has significant drawbacks for the European Union, just as it has significant drawbacks for the United Kingdom. If it were ever to emerge, the backstop would result in Great Britain enjoying the benefits of a customs union and paying nothing for that. The relevant payment in respect of the customs union would come from trade in Northern Ireland, not in Great Britain. Let us remember that there is very little in this that benefits the European Union, let alone the United Kingdom.

If we were, however, to find ourselves in a situation in which there was shocking or egregious conduct on the part of the European Union, the arbitration measure would be available. In finding that there was a breach, the arbitrators would be entitled to grant temporary measures. That would include a temporary suspension of the operation of the relevant backstop provisions with regard to the border.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, asked, quite rightly, what would happen at the border. One answer is that we would find ourselves in that situation only where the European Union had not been prepared to engage with coherent, sensible proposals put forward by the United Kingdom to deal with the border and ensure that it could remain entirely open. If a suspension was ordered by the arbitrators, it would then be open to the United Kingdom to implement those proposals unilaterally at the border in order to deal with the issue. If thereafter—in utterly extreme circumstances—the European Union was to persist in refusing to engage with the temporary suspension of the protocol, the arbitrators would eventually come to the conclusion, quite rightly, that the protocol was simply not required; that it was no longer “necessary” because the alternative arrangements during the suspension had clearly worked to the satisfaction of the European Union, which had done nothing in the meantime. Again, I stress that we are talking about the most extreme of circumstances. I do not contemplate that, politically, anyone will go there.