On 11 March, the European Union and the United Kingdom announced that agreement had been reached on the legal clarifications sought by the United Kingdom with the hope that these might be enough to ensure backing by MPs. These clarifications are found in two joint texts – an “Instrument” relating to the application of the Withdrawal Agreement and a “joint statement” supplementing the Political Declaration – and a unilateral declarationmade by the UK Government. It is on the basis of these clarifications that the UK Government has indicated to Parliament that political agreement has been reached and MPs are due to vote on 12 March on a motion to approve the texts of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration as is required under section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

The Legal Status of the Clarifications

The main text simply describes itself as an “instrument”. We tend to think of instruments as a generic description rather than identifying a specific type of instrument e.g. a treaty, a protocol, a decision. The instrument itself states that it is an instrument for the purposes of Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treatiesmeaning that it is an instrument “which was made by one or more parties in connexion with the conclusion of the treaty and accepted by the other parties as an instrument related to the treaty”. The legal value of this is that when it comes to interpreting the objects and purposes of any treaty or agreement –  the central legal interpretative exercise – such an instrument is to be used to identify and define the purpose of the agreement. In other words, the joint instrument agreed between the Union and the UK is a legal instrument that reflects a common understanding of the purposes of provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

The joint statement on the Political Declaration similarly attempts to clarify how aspects of the Political Declaration will be taken forward and underscores the relationship between the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration. Nonetheless, its legal status is no higher than that of the Political Declaration itself. The Declaration and the supplementary text identify political commitments and political intentions in instruments which are not of themselves binding legal texts.

The declaration by the UK Government sets out its understanding of the objective of the backstop. It is unilateral in nature and in consequence it cannot create obligations for the EU unless the Union acts in a manner which indicates that it considers itself bound by the declaration. Rather, it is a text that defines the legal position of the UK in respect of how it would act were it to consider that the backstop had become permanent contrary to its objective.

The Legal Effects Created

Far more important than the legal status of the texts is the legal effects that they are intended to create. In respect of the backstop, the key issues relate to how to avoid the backstop being triggered in the first place and how to exit the backstop were it to come into effect if no agreement could be reached to replace it.

Article 2(1) of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland states:

The Union and the United Kingdom shall use their best endeavours to conclude, by 31 December 2020, an agreement which supersedes this Protocol in whole or in part.

In other words, by the end of the transition period – during which time the whole of the UK will remain bound by EU law obligations – it is the aim of the Union and the UK to have in place an agreement that will prevent the backstop being triggered. In view of this – together with the general “good faith” obligation contained in Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement – the joint instrument sets out the commitments the parties are making with regard to the negotiations on subsequent agreements that will supersede the backstop. These steps include:

  • Preparatory work on the future negotiations as soon as the Withdrawal Agreement is signed (para 6)
  • A distinct negotiating track to replace the customs and regulatory alignment aspects of the Protocol through “alternative arrangements” including existing and future “facilitative arrangements and technology” (para 7, and para 6 of the supplementary joint statement)
  • A capacity for the distinct negotiating track to give rise to either a separate agreement or to form part of the overall future relationship. A separate agreement could become applicable and replace the relevant parts of the backstop even if the future relationship had not been agreed, and could be given provisional application pending ratification (paras 10 and 11)
  • Regular monitoring of the progress of the negotiations with high level conferences convened every six months (para 8) or at the request of the parties to address substantive obstacles that might risk or delay progress (para 9).

These are the sorts of steps I identified as being essential to the implementation of the commitments made in the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration in my proposal for an “Implementation Protocol”. They are intended to ensure that negotiations are on track to deliver outcomes before the end of the transition period.

The more contentious aspects relate to what happens if the backstop is deployed and there are problems with agreeing texts to replace the backstop. In his original legal advice, the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox highlighted that the backstop would endure unless and until replaced by a subsequent agreement. Although the parties did not intend the backstop to be permanent, if there was no way out of it, then it would endure. He highlighted that if a dispute about the backstop went to the Arbitration Panel established under the Withdrawal Agreement, the remedies available before the Panel did not include termination of the backstop. Instead the remedy that might be available would be to suspend the operation of part of the Agreement with a view to bringing the other side back to the negotiating table (para 28 of the AG’s advice).

The joint instrument aims to clarify that if either the UK or the Union act “with the objective of applying the [backstop] Protocol indefinitely” contrary to the good faith obligation contained in Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement and the best endeavours obligation in Article 2(1) of the Protocol, then the Joint Committee established under the Withdrawal Agreement is to be immediately brought into action with a view to resolving the dispute. If the dispute is escalated to an Arbitration Panel established under the Agreement, it can determine if one side is acting with the objective of applying the Protocol indefinitely. The joint instrument notes that a “persistent failure” to comply with its obligations could give rise to “temporary remedies” against the offending party. However, the key message it contains is that ultimately the aggrieved party could unilaterally enacts of proportionate suspension of its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement – apart from the citizens’ rights provisions – “unless and until” compliance with the ruling of the Arbitration Panel is ensured (para 14).

In this way – and without termination of the agreement – the UK could unilaterally suspend its obligatons under the Withdrawal Agreement, but only once an Arbitration Panel had concluded that the Union was breaching its good faith and best endeavours obligations as regards the negotiation of an agreement to supersede the backstop, and only if there was a “persistent failure” to comply.

This presents a two-fold difficulty.

The first point is that the effect of this instrument is limited to only one type of breach – acting with the objective of making the backstop indefinite contrary to the obligations of good faith and best endeavours in the conduct fo negotiations – rather than any other disagreement between the two sides. Yet, it is perfectly possible that both sides and in good faith have very different understandings of a problem that is preventing them from reaching an agreement. Indeed, the difficulties with the negotiations thus far may point to that very fact. In legal terms, neither side has complained that the other is acting in bad faith even when they have clashed over what might be needed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. This may mean that an Arbitration Panel could conclude that a dispute between the parties simply did not give rise to a breach of the good faith or best endeavours  obligations.

Of course, this would not prevent other types of dispute coming before the Arbitration Panel. Indeed a dispute could arise as to the operation of the review mechanism in Article 20 of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland which aims to determine when the backstop should cease to apply. But in placing all the emphasis on an exceptional breach of the good faith and best endeavours obligations, an opportunity has been missed to clarify how the Article 20 review mechanism might ordinarily be applied. In my proposal for an “Implementation Protocol” I suggested that the Joint Committee establish an “assessment framework” to help with the review mechanism, with oversight from the Arbitration Panel.

The second difficulty is the very open nature of the good faith and best endeavours obligations. As normative standards they are open to different interpretations and an Arbitration Panel might demand a high standard of proof to show that they had been breached.

The UK’s unilateral declaration is intended to shed some further light on this. It sets out the UK’s understanding that a breach of the good faith requirement preventing the conclusion of an agreement to supersede the Protocol would entitle it to consider that the Protocol was no longer temporary, and that nothing in the Agreement would “prevent it from instigating measures that could ultimately lead to disapplication of obligations under the Protocol”. This would seem to repeat para 14 of the Joint Instrument rather than adding anything to it. Indeed, it is clear that the outcome of the disapplication of obligations would have to follow the process to which the UK is legally bound under the Withdrawal Agreement, namely seeking a political resolution within the Joint Committee and a referral to an Arbitration Panel if there is no resolution. All of which takes us back to the difficulty in determining a breach of the good faith and best endeavours obligation in the first place.

In conclusion, the clarifications that have been produced are contained in documents with a legal status intended to produce legal effects. Insofar as those effects are aimed at de-risking failures in the political negotiations on the future relationship they are a step in the right direction, although my proposal for an “Implementation Protocol”goes further, not least by giving parliaments a greater oversight over future negotiations. In respect of remedies in the event that there are problems in the negotiations, the Union and the UK have put all their eggs in one basket – a breach of the good faith and best endeavours obligations. This may confine disputes and remedies to a narrow corridor of problems that may beset negotiations with the added problem that an Arbitration Panel may demand a great deal before finding a breach of those obligations.

MPs looking for a reason to vote in favour of the Government’s deal may well find enough in this to grasp with both hands. However, those looking for a reason to reject the deal will also find limitations in what has been produced.

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