Categories
Uncategorized

Could a ‘No Deal’ Brexit Breach EU Law?

How much does EU law really have to say about the withdrawal of a Member State from the EU? This seems like an odd question given how much we know about the role played by Article 50 TEU. For example, we know that Article 50 gives the withdrawing state and the EU a two year window to negotiate a withdrawal agreement whose entry into force results in the EU treaties ceasing to apply to that state. By agreement of the withdrawing state and the remaining EU states, the period laid down in Article 50 can be extended. But once the Article 50 period comes to an end, the treaties shall cease to apply even if there is no withdrawal agreement. Viewed in this way, the departure of a Member State without a withdrawal agreement does not appear of itself to be contrary to EU law.

Nonetheless, the behaviour of the parties is subject to legal stipulations. Article 50 recognises that the decision to withdraw will be taken in accordance with the domestic constitutional requirements of the withdrawing state. What those requirements might be and how they are enforced are matters for the withdrawing state. The Millercase is a good example of UK courts determining what the constitutional requirements were for a UK Prime Minister to trigger the Article 50 withdrawal process.

Maintaining compliance with domestic constitutional requirements is not restricted to the decision to withdraw but necessarily applies to any exercise of executive power that impacts on the withdrawal process. This is clearly implied in the so-called ‘Three Knights Opinion’. While the legality of a No Deal Brexit arising from the acts or omissions of the UK Government is a matter of domestic law to be determined by UK courts, does that mean that EU law remains agnostic?

Whether or not EU law is or should be agnostic about domestic constitutionality has been an open question since the 2016 referendum. Various domestic court cases have sought to impugn the legality of the 2016 referendum and the withdrawal ‘decision’ with a view to claiming that the Article 50 notification was legally invalid and so ought not to be recognised and given effect in EU law. Nonetheless, in the absence of any court determination annulling the 2016 referendum result and instead – following the Miller case – an Act of Parliament authorising the Prime Minister to notify the EU of the UK’s decision to withdraw, there has simply been no plausible legal basis for the legality of the UK’s withdrawal to be called into question from an EU law perspective.

Things have now become a little more complicated for two reasons. The first is the Wightman ruling of the Court of Justice on the capacity of a Member State to revoke its EU withdrawal notification. The second are pending court cases in the UK to challenge the constitutionality and legality of steps that could be taken by the UK Government to engineer a No Deal Brexit.

In Wightman the Court of Justice was asked whether as a matter of EU law it was possible for a Member State to revoke its withdrawal notification prior to the treaties ceasing to have effect in terms of Article 50. The Court concluded that there was a unilateral right to revoke the Article 50 notification. But the Court said that the revocation had to be ‘unequivocal and unconditional’ with the purpose of confirming EU membership. The Court also stated that the notification of revocation followed from a decision taken by the Member State in accordance with its constitutional requirements.  As the Court put it:

 … if the notification of the intention to withdraw were to lead inevitably to the withdrawal of the Member State concerned from the European Union at the end of the period laid down in Article 50(3) TEU, that Member State could be forced to leave the European Union despite its wish — as expressed through its democratic process in accordance with its constitutional requirements — to reverse its decision to withdraw and, accordingly, to remain a Member of the European Union.

It would appear that it is not just the decision to withdraw but subsequent decisions concerning a state’s status as a Member State of the Union that are understood to be taken in accordance with domestic constitutional requirements. Again it is important to emphasise that what those requirements are remain matters of domestic law and the Court of Justice is not in a position to interpret domestic law let alone national constitutional provisions.

Nonetheless, were there to be a suggestion that a government or its Prime Minister was behaving unconstitutionally, the question would at least arise as to what legal effect such acts – or even omissions – should have as a matter of EU law.

This point is underscored when we think of the relationship between what the Court said about a revocation decision being taken in accordance with national constitutional requirements – a matter of domestic law – and the stipulation that a revocation decision had to ‘unequivocal and unconditional’ – a matter of EU law. Although the Court demands that a revocation is unequivocal and unconditional, there is really very little way of enforcing this demand. How would we know that a state was not serious about its revocation decision until after the event? Would the mere fact that a state once again triggered the Article 50 process automatically mean that its earlier decision to revoke was not unequivocal? What would the EU do about it?

Rather, what gives a revocation decision its unequivocal and unconditional character from an EU law perspective is that it derives from a decision taken through a democratic process in accordance with national constitutional requirements. There is a clear linkage between the legality of the decision from an EU perspective and the constitutional qualities of the decision from a domestic perspective. That would seem to be even more so in a situation where the rights of EU citizens derived from EU law – and which an orderly withdrawal seeks to protect – would be affected by a No Deal Brexit which the Court explicitly highlights in its Wightmanruling.

The issue of the constitutionality and legality of the behaviour of the UK Government in pursuing a No Deal Brexit is the subject of a judicial review petition before the Scottish Court of Session and is likely to be raised in proceedings in the English courts. It is first and foremost for the UK courts to determine the legality of a No Deal Brexit from a domestic legal perspective and to provide appropriate remedial protection. What is not clear is what capacity the Union might have to act in response to domestic court proceedings when faced with what could otherwise be a disorderly departure of the EU by the apparent operation of Article 50 itself. It is not obvious how the EU could stop the clock even if there were allegations that the UK Prime Minister was acting unconstitutionally if that issue could not be determined prior to 31 October 2019.

There is one other consideration, however, that should be noted. As was made clear at the outset, Article 50 does envisage that a state can leave the Union without a withdrawal agreement. But can a state choose to frustrate the objective of Article 50, namely to secure an orderly withdrawal? Again in Wightman, the Court of Justice was explicit about the objectives which Article 50 pursues:

Article 50 TEU pursues two objectives, namely, first, enshrining the sovereign right of a Member State to withdraw from the European Union and, secondly, establishing a procedure to enable such a withdrawal to take place in an orderly fashion.

As I have argued elsewhere, the objective of an orderly withdrawal is a means of managing the externalities which this unilateral withdrawal from the Union creates for the remaining EU states: ‘Brexternalities’. It is also for this reason, that the Union has insisted – and the UK has accepted – that the Article 50 process is governed by the legal principle of ‘sincere cooperation’ as laid down in Article 4(3) TEU. The final paragraph of Article 4(3) TEU is especially relevant. It provides this:

The Member States shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives.

Given that in Wightman the Court explicitly states that an orderly withdrawal is an objective of the Union pursued by Article 50 TEU, action by a withdrawing state that deliberately frustrates that objective would be a breach of a EU law. It would be actionable by the European Commission using infringement proceedings (Article 258 TFEU) or by a Member State like Ireland (Article 259 TFEU).

To take an analogy from a different aspect of EU law – the obligation to implement directives in national law – the Court makes clear that although a state is not obliged to take any measure to implement before the expiry of the period laid down in the directive for its transposition into national law, the state is prohibited from taking any measure liable seriously to compromise its ability to transpose the directive correctly. In other words, the state can do nothing but what it cannot do is to frustrate an objective of EU law. In its Inter-Environnement Wallonie ruling, the Court noted that it was for national courts to determine whether the actions of the Member State were in fact a breach of the sincere cooperation duty. Accordingly, this issue of EU law could form part of domestic legal proceedings concerning the legality of actions taken by the UK Government to force through a No Deal Brexit.

The on-going significance of the duty of sincere cooperation is underlined in the binding European Council Decision granting the UK the extension to 31 October 2019. Para. 10 of the European Council Decision states:

‘… The European Council takes note of the commitment by the United Kingdom to act in a constructive and responsible manner throughout the extension period in accordance with the duty of sincere cooperation, and expects the United Kingdom to fulfil this commitment and Treaty obligation in a manner that reflects its situation as a withdrawing Member State. To this effect, the United Kingdom shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and shall refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives, in particular when participating in the decision-making processes of the Union.’

Although aimed at the behaviour of the UK in respect of the ordinary workings of the EU, it serves to underline again the importance attached to the duty of sincere cooperation during the extended Article 50 period and which a deliberate No Deal policy would frustrate.

Whether or not these issues are litigated and with what effect remains to be seen. Commenting on Brexit, former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption stated that the courts are not there to solve every political problem. To which he might have added that not all legal problems necessarily result in court action. Nonetheless, with litigation over a No Deal Brexit beginning to take shape, it is at least worth considering why a No Deal Brexit could be a breach of EU law itself.

Categories
Uncategorized

Putting the Bullet Back in the Chamber -Could Parliament Exit from Brexit?

The Wightman judgment from the Court of Justice of the European Union holding that a Member State may unilaterally revoke its notified intention to withdraw from the EU prior to that withdrawal taking effect has largely fallen foul of a Brexit news cycle in which each new twist and turn supersedes the last. Indeed the UK Prime Minister’s decision to postpone a House of Commons vote to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration negotiated between the UK and the EU almost entirely overshadowed the Court’s ruling.With the substance of the ruling more or less following last week’s Opinion from the Court’s Advocate General, the impact of the judgment is also somewhat reduced. However, the judgment contains significant messages for political and legal audiences.

To the political audience there is one enormous political message and it is not so much a message about withdrawal as it is about membership.

The Court is clearly signalling that membership of the European Union, and the rights and responsibilities which come with it, is voluntary. States exercise their sovereignty to choose to join the European Union and the Court emphasises that when states join the EU using the Article 49 TEU process they ‘freely and voluntary’ commit themselves to the values underpinning the EU. The discipline of EU membership – including acceptance of the primacy and direct effect of EU law – is something which states can accept voluntarily by joining, or reject voluntarily by leaving the EU. If a state decides to change its mind and not to leave but to remain a Member State, it must be free to do so voluntarily and can neither be coerced into leaving or be authorized to remain by the other Member States.

In short, the Union is a voluntary association of sovereign and equal Member States. As political messages go, that is a pretty big message.

That big message also comes with a more specific message for the UK. If the UK were to decide to remain in the EU it would do so ‘under terms that are unchanged as regards its status as a Member State’. Given that the UK’s membership of the EU entails a range of opt-outs, these would not be up for renegotiation as a condition of remaining an EU Member State.

In other words, the status quo of remaining in the EU would be the status quo of the UK’s current terms of membership.

Aside from these important political message, the judgment also has something for EU lawyers and UK constitutional lawyers.

For EU lawyers, the decision is of significance not least in resolving a legal question that had been much debated in blogs and in journal articles (some of which are summarised in my earlier blog on this case). Despite well expressed reservations in some quarters that unilateral revocation might be used to game a withdrawal process or might otherwise risk moral hazards or abuse, the Court has come down on the side of a contextual and historical interpretation of Article 50 TEU that emphasises the voluntary nature of the withdrawal process. Accordingly, unless and until a withdrawal agreement enters into force or the two-year withdrawal period – or an extended period – expires, a Member State remains free to change its mind and notify the European Council (in writing) of its ‘unequivocal and unconditional’ intention to remain a Member State of the EU.

The ruling is also of interest to EU lawyers because of the willingness of the Court not only to deal with the case on an expedited basis – the ruling comes barely more than two months from the request of the Scottish Court of Session for a preliminary ruling from the Court – but also because of the rejection of the UK Government’s position that the referral was inadmissible. The Court was unwilling to accept that the presumption of the relevance of the question posed by the national court had been rebutted. Interestingly, once the Inner House of the Court of Session had determined that the case was admissible under domestic rules governing an application for judicial review and had rejected claims that a referral was inadmissible on grounds of being hypothetical or academic in nature, the Court of Justice appeared to be content with those assessments. In particular, the Court did not accept that there was no real dispute between the parties unlike other cases where the parties have essentially contrived litigation in order to obtain an interpretation of EU law from the Court. That said, the essential dispute between the parliamentarians and the UK government was on the need for a reference to the Court of Justice: it is hard to see what other substantive dispute there was between the parties.

For UK constitutional lawyers, the Wightman ruling is also of some significance. While the UK Supreme Court in Miller had proceeded on the assumption that an Article 50 TEU notice could not be revoked we now know that this is not the position under EU law and no doubt some will speculate whether the clarification of the legal position would have led to a different result (for the reasons given by Jack Williams it is unlikely that the Supreme Court would have decided differently). However, the point remains that there are domestic constitutional requirements which must be met in order for the UK to leave the EU and as the Court of Justice tells us, these are also applicable to revocation of a notice of intention to withdraw from the EU. Indeed, the Court’s safeguard against an abusive withdrawal of a notified intention to leave the EU is that a change of mind is subject to domestic decision-making procedures. Thus, any decision not to withdraw from the EU must – by analogy with the decision to withdraw in terms of Article 50(1) TEU – be in accordance with domestic constitutional requirements.

The Court of Justice has muddied the waters somewhat, however, by referring not just to the notification of an intention to revoke in accordance with domestic constitutional requirements but also to the Member State’s decision ‘to revoke the notification of that intention through a democratic process’. Two issues arise. Is the need for a ‘democratic process’ an additional EU law requirement, and what would an acceptable democratic process look like?

One way in which the Court departs from its Advocate General is that the Court does not demand that the notification of revocation meet EU requirements of good faith and sincere cooperation. In that light the reference to the democratic process could be viewed as a more concrete procedural demand of EU law intended to prevent an abusive exercise of the right to revoke at the whim of the executive. However, the better view is that decisions to withdraw from the EU or stay a Member State remain sovereign matters for the Member States themselves and the domestic constitutional and democratic procedures mandated by the laws of the Member States. The EU law requirement is instead for the revocation to be ‘unequivocal and unconditional’ – that the revocation is the result of a constitutional and democratic process is the domestic means of achieving that outcome. It is not for the EU to mandate what those constitutional and democratic requirements ought to be, but it is for the EU to verify that the outcome achieves its need for a decision that is unequivocal and unconditional.

All of which leaves open the question of what democratic requirements might be required by UK law. As we saw with the original Article 50 withdrawal notification, it may not be entirely apparent what rules UK law imposes. Phillipson and Young contend that an Act of Parliament would be required given that the will of Parliament – expressed in the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 providing for the UK’s departure from the EU – would be frustrated by a revocation of the UK’s Article 50 notice. A referendum prior to that decision would not be required although it could be undertaken if the UK so chose. But whether a referendum occurs or not is being driven by the somewhat chaotic domestic politics of Brexit rather than being a product of the Court’s Wightman ruling. Indeed one way of reading the judgment is that the best way of securing an unconditional and unequivocal decision to revoke the notified intention to withdraw from the EU is for the UK Parliament to legislate accordingly.

If the political message of the Wightman ruling is that the EU is a union of sovereign states, then the legal message is that it is up to the sovereign UK Parliament to decide whether the UK leaves the EU or remains a Member State. But as the Prime Minister’s decision to postpone a vote on her deal reveals, it is not obvious that there is any consensus within Parliament to move one way or another. The Court of Justice has left open the possibility for the Brexit bullet to be returned to the chamber. It is not obvious that the Chamber of the House of Commons knows whether it wants the bullet back.

An earlier version of this post appeared as Sovereign Choices: The CJEU’s Ruling on Exit from Brexit, VerfBlog, 2018/12/10, https://verfassungsblog.de/sovereign-choices-the-cjeus-ruling-on-exit-from-brexit/.