The Legal Clarifications to the Withdrawal Agreement – White Smoke or Smoke and Mirrors?

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.

The Cooper-Letwin Article 50 Extension Proposal – How Long For?

Arriving at a summit at Sharm El-Sheikh, the UK Prime Minister has confirmed that this week’s votes in the House of Commons will not include a vote to approve a revised Brexit deal. No ‘deal in the desert’ is set to emerge at this gathering of EU leaders. Instead the so-called ‘meaningful vote’ will likely take place on 12 March a matter of weeks before the United Kingdom’s scheduled departure from the European Union on 29 March 2019.

There may, however, be a vote of some significance if MPs vote on the plan promoted by Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin to seek an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process, pushing back the date of the UK’s departure from the Union.

At the end of January, the House of Commons rejected Cooper’s original amendment that would have extended the Article 50 process to the end of the year. But as time has passed the likelihood of a need to request more time has grown.

With the exception of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit – which MPs rejected when they voted on the ‘Spelman amendment’ in January – any Brexit scenario is now going to need an extension of the Article 50 process.

If MPs had this week been presented with, and backed, a Brexit deal, the legislation to bring that deal into law in the UK – a 100-page European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill – will take time to make its way through the legislative process. This sort of extension is what is sometimes described by the EU as a ‘technical extension’ and would be for a matter of months.

However, with the EU still waiting for clarity from the UK about what sort of deal could command a majority in the House of Commons, a more radical idea has been floatedof forgetting about a technical extension and instead pushing Brexit back to 2021. In essence this would mean abandoning a 2019 Brexit with a transition period to 2020 or 2021 during which a new EU-UK relationship would be worked out.  Instead the UK would remain a Member State while it decided what it really wanted by way of a future relationship with the EU.

A delayed Brexit of this length would avoid the problems of a shorter extension running into the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament. Remaining a Member State would mean that the UK would have to return MEPs in this year’s election notwithstanding that the number of MEPs allocated to the UK have already been redistributed to the other Member States.

Nonetheless, it would also beg the question whether the EU – contrary to the position it has consistently taken – would actually be prepared to negotiate the text of a future relationship without the UK having become a so-called ‘third country’. The key advantage of having a negotiated deal in place at the moment that the UK left the EU would be that it could avoid the need to have an ‘Irish backstop’ as an insurance policy while negotiations on a future deal that would also avoid a hard border were on-going.

While one can see the advantages of a delayed Brexit, it would have profound domestic political consequences.

It would accept that the May Government had failed to produce a plan for the future capable of obtaining a consensus or even a majority within the Commons. If the Prime Minister cannot get a deal over the line with a technical extension to implement it, it’s difficult to see how either she or her government could carry on. Indeed, one might even consider that an extension of Brexit to 2021 would be a pretext for an early election to allow a new government to seek to build a consensus on a different way forward. In that way, it would be a proposal that would play to the Labour leadership’s preference for a general election as a way of unblocking the Brexit deadlock.

Delaying Brexit would create a significant rift in the Conservative Party between those who don’t want any delay to Brexit even if that means a No Deal Brexit, and those who want a softer Brexit or even for the UK to remain in the EU. It would also be a significant boost to Nigel Farage and his Brexit party who would claim that Brexit was being frustrated, creating futher tensions within the other main parties.

For those who want the UK to remain in the EU, the longer the UK remains a Member State, the greater the potential to build momentum around a new referendum and a Remain vote.

It is readily apparent, therefore, that a lengthy extension to UK membership of the EU wouldn’t merely create an opportunity to define a vision of a UK future outside of the EU, it would fundamentally reconfigure the domestic politics of Brexit.

More immediately, this all presents a very important choice for a new Cooper-Letwin Article 50 extension proposal.

Any extension needs the consent of the EU27. If the EU has come to the conclusion that an extension is EITHER a short-term technical extension OR a more lengthy delay to Brexit, then the Cooper-Letwin proposal would need to choose between these options.

If they go for a short extension it would be tantamount to accepting that Brexit will be a variant of the current negotiated texts with a risk that a No Deal Brexit could still happen if MPs refuse to back the deal.

If they go for a longer extension, it would recognise that only a No Deal Brexit had been largely taken off the table with a No Brexit option remaining in play as well as a potential change of government.

Whie the Prime Minister could have lived with an amendment giving a technical extension, an amendment that would significantly delay Brexit would be difficult for the Government to support even tacitly.  It would also be difficult for the Labour leadership not least because of the intense pressure on Jeremy Corbyn following this week’s spate of MP’s resignations from the party. The Labour Party may say it wants a general election but it is not obvious it would win given the internal divisions within the party over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Once again, issues of time profoundly shape what sort of Brexit – if any – will result. The fate of the Cooper-Letwin initiative may well depend on how much time they think is needed for an Article 50 extension.

There may be no deal in the desert but the sands of time continue to trickle for the UK and the EU.

 

Is the ‘Backstop’ a Trampoline to the Future UK-EU Trade Relationship

Following the publication of the text of the Withdrawal Agreement on 14 November, the full text of the Political Declaration on the future UK-EU relationship is now keenly awaited (the outline was published on the same day as the text of the Withdrawal Agreement). It will set out the aspirations for an ambitious economic relationship between the UK and the EU to be negotiated once the UK has left the EU on 29 March 2019. EU leaders will consider these documents at a special summit to be held on 25 November.

The Withdrawal Agreement itself is not just the ‘divorce’ agreement but also sets out two routes to a new UK-EU relationship.

The apparently obvious route is to be found in the part of the Agreement establishing a ‘transition period’. In essence, the transition period is a legal ‘stand-still’ during which time the UK will remain bound by EU law obligations but without being a Member State and without any of the representation in the EU’s institutions that flows from EU membership. The transition period is intended to give the UK and EU time to negotiate agreements governing their future relationship. The transition period lasts until 31 December 2020 unless – before the end of July 2020 – the UK and EU agree to exercise an option to extend the transition period. Although the Withdrawal Agreement does not determine how long this extension might last, the use of the formulation ‘up to [31 December 21XX]’ suggests at least a year up until the end of 2021, although Michel Barnier has indicateda willingness to accept a transition period up until the end of 2022. Extending transition will entail making future budget contributions for the additional years that the UK remains in the transition period.

The longer that the UK remains in transition, the longer the UK and the EU have to negotiate a future relationship without the need for the provisions of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland – the ‘backstop’ – to be triggered. Until the transition period ends, frontier controls on the island of Ireland will continue to be eliminated because the UK will remain in the Customs Union and the Single Market. While offering a relatively smooth transition from EU membership – things would remain more or less as they are until the new agreement became applicable – an extended transition period has certain drawbacks.

A longer transition opens the UK Government to the accusation of delivering a ‘zombie’ Brexit that transgresses its own red lines. In transition the UK will have formally left the EU but will remain within the Customs Union, the Single Market – including free movement of people – and remain subject to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice. Extending transition also entails additional budgetary contributions. The other less obvious but potentially significant problem with parking the UK in transition is that it doesn’t help identify what the UK would be transitioning towards and so might make it less easy for businesses to anticipate the adjustments they may need to make. That said, the political declaration ought to go some way towards illuminating the path towards the future relationship even if it stops short of building a direct legal bridge towards the ultimate destination.

The less obvious route to a future relationship with the EU is through the ‘backstop’. There are two reasons why we have perhaps not given sufficient thought to the backstop as an additional bridging device. The first is that we have tended to treat the ‘Irish problem’ as somehow distinct from the wider discussion about the UK-EU future relationship. This was odd given that it should have been clear that any solution to the border issues on the island of Ireland was always going to be a strong signifier of how the UK and the EU might structure their economic relationship to reduce any friction on trade. It would be a tall order to devise one solution to manage the border issues in Ireland as a ‘backstop’ and at the same time devise a different but equivalent solution for the future relationship. Nonetheless, with some factions pushing the Government towards a more minimalist free trade agreement – which would leave unresolved the Irish border issues – treating the backstop as an exceptional device became part and parcel of how we thought about it. Secondly, the language of ‘backstop’, or ‘insurance policy’ or ‘safety net’ has underscored the idea that this is a device which is not intended to be used.  Instead the focus has been on agreeing the future relationship to avoid ever having to invoke the backstop’s provisions.

However, when we consider what the UK and the EU have agreed as a backstop it becomes much clearer that this may be less a residual fall-back and more of a policy choice as a way of bridging the gap between EU membership and a future relationship. The backstop may turn out not to be a safety net, but a trampoline.

At the core of the backstop is the ‘single customs territory’ encompassing the customs territory of the EU and the customs territory of the whole of the UK including Northern Ireland. Good produced in either territory move without payment of any customs duties, as do goods from third countries that have paid the relevant tariffs applied by the EU and the UK to goods from outside the single customs territory (the UK will align its tariffs and its trade policy with that of the EU).

During the operation of the backstop, the UK has committed to certain ‘level playing field’ obligations in respect of taxation including compliance with EU and international standards as well as certain EU directives. In the spheres of environmental, social and employment regulation, there are  ‘non-regression’ clauses. These commit the UK to not reduce its level of protection in things like air quality targets and waste management. The UK has also agreed to implement a system of carbon pricing in line with the EU’s carbon trading system. In the area of employment protection, the Protocol requires the UK not to reduce standards in areas such as health and safety at work, working conditions and employment standards (but without application of the dispute resolution mechanism laid down in the Agreement).

In addition to all of this, the Protocol requires the UK to comply with EU state aid rules (with certain exemptions for agricultural production) albeit enforced not by the European Commission but the UK Competition and Markets Authority (the UK’s competition regulator). That said, the European Commission is to be allowed to bring cases in UK courts for alleged breaches of state aid rules. The EU’s competition rules on cartels and abusive market behaviour is also applicable.

In short, while the backstop means that the UK is out of the EU Customs Union and its Single Market, the coordination of the UK and EU customs territories and the maintenance of certain obligations aimed at ensuring that competition is not distorted ensure that the whole of the UK will enter into an economic relationship with the EU that may anticipate the type of future relationship that the UK and EU might seek to build. To be sure, an agreement on a future relationship will seek to go beyond this not least in terms of trade in services and other non-economic spheres of cooperation like foreign and security policies. But at least as regards trade in goods, entering into a backstop arrangement pending the finalisation of a complete package of agreements on a future relationship might seem preferable to an extension of the transition period.

What then becomes interesting is that the other provisions of the backstop that are specific to North-South relations on the island of Ireland and which would keep Northern Ireland more closely aligned with the EU Single Market than the rest of the UK – in order to avoid non-tariff barriers to trade on the island of Ireland – becomes the exceptional part rather than the dominant part of the agreement.

That the backstop may perform a more active role in defining what happens after 29 March 2019 can be easily evidenced. The Preamble to the Protocol itself makes clear that:

‘HAVING REGARD to the Union and to the United Kingdom’s common objective of a close future relationship, which will establish ambitious customs arrangements that build on the single customs territory provided for in this Protocol, in full respect of their respective legal orders.’

The UK Government’s own explanation of what the Withdrawal Agreement entails – while describing the backstop as an ‘uncomfortable arrangement’ – nonetheless states that:

‘If the future relationship is not going to be ready by 1 January 2021, the UK has two choices: request an extension of the [transition period] or activate the backstop.’

This presents the backstop as a distinctive policy choice. It would move the UK out of a stand-still transition in which the UK would have the obligations and not the benefits of EU membership into what would in effect constitute an ‘interim agreement leading to the formation of a free trade area/customs union’ within the meaning of Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994. The enforcement mechanisms contained in the Withdrawal Agreement would apply in place of the normal enforcement mechanisms that apply to EU Member States and which will apply to the UK during transition. The free movement of people would come to an end.

Legally, using the backstop as an interim trade deal is not without its difficulties and may even be incompatible with the use of Article 50 TEU as a legal basis particularly if the backstop dragged on. Indeed, while there has been much discussion about the inability of the UK to unilaterally exit the backstop, were the backstop to become an enduring basis of UK-EU relations the legality of the arrangement would likely be challenged.

If the Withdrawal Agreement ever enters into force – and currently it looks unlikely to obtain approval in the House of Commons – we may yet look back and realise that turning the backstop into an interim trade arrangement was the key to making Brexit happen.