Attorney General’s legal opinion on the Withdrawal Agreement and Joint Instrument

12th March 2019

Geoffrey Cox makes a statement to the House of Commons about his legal opinion on the joint instrument and unilateral declaration concerning the withdrawal agreement.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about my legal opinion on the joint instrument and unilateral declaration concerning the withdrawal agreement published last night.

Last week, I confirmed I would publish my

“legal opinion on any document that is produced and negotiated with the Union.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2019; Vol. 655, c. 1112.]

That has now been laid before the House. This statement summarises the instruments and my opinion of their legal effect.

Last night in Strasbourg, the Prime Minister secured legally binding changes that strengthen and improve the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. The Government laid three new documents reflecting those changes in the House: first, a joint legally binding instrument on the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Northern Ireland; secondly, a unilateral declaration by the United Kingdom in relation to the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol; and thirdly, a joint statement to supplement the political declaration. The legal opinion I have provided to the House today focuses on the first two of those documents, which relate to the functioning of the backstop and the efforts of the parties that will be required to supersede it.

Let me say frankly what, in my opinion, these documents do not do. They are not about a situation where, despite the parties properly fulfilling the duties of good faith and best endeavours, they cannot reach an agreement on a future relationship. Such an event, in my opinion, is highly unlikely to occur, and it is in the interests of both the United Kingdom and the European Union to agree a future relationship as quickly as possible. Let me make it clear, however, that were such a situation to occur, the legal risk, as I set it out in my letter of 13 November, remains unchanged. The question for the House is whether in the light of these improvements, as a political judgment, it should now enter into those arrangements.

Let me move on to what the documents do achieve. As I set out in my opinion, the joint instrument puts the commitments in the letter from Presidents Tusk and Juncker of 14 January 2019 into a legally binding form, and provides, in addition, useful clarifications, amplifications of existing obligations, and some new obligations. The instrument confirms that the European Union cannot pursue an objective of trying to trap the UK in the backstop indefinitely. It makes explicit that that would constitute bad faith, which would be the basis of a formal dispute before an arbitration tribunal. That means, ultimately, that the protocol could be suspended if the European Union continued to breach its obligations.

The joint instrument also reflects the United Kingdom’s and the Union’s commitment to work to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by December 2020, including as set out in the withdrawal agreement. Those commitments include establishing

“immediately following the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, a negotiating track for replacing the customs and regulatory alignment in goods elements of the protocol with alternative arrangements.”

If an agreement has not been concluded within one year of the UK’s withdrawal, efforts must be redoubled. [Laughter.]

Order.

In my view, as a matter of law, the provisions relating to the timing of the efforts to be made in resolving withdrawal agreements make time of the essence in the negotiation of a subsequent agreement. A doctrine with which the lawyers in the House will be familiar is of legal relevance. In my opinion, the provisions of the joint instrument extend beyond mere interpretation of the withdrawal agreement, and represent materially new legal obligations and commitments which enhance its existing terms.

Let me now turn to the unilateral declaration. It records the United Kingdom’s position that, if it were not possible to conclude a subsequent agreement to replace the protocol because of a breach by the Union of its duty of good faith, it would be entitled to take measures to disapply the provisions of the protocol in accordance with the withdrawal agreement’s dispute resolution procedures and article 20, to which I have referred. There is no doubt, in my view, that the clarifications and amplified obligations contained in the joint statement and the unilateral declaration provide a substantive and binding reinforcement of the legal rights available to the UK in the event that the Union were to fail in its duties of good faith and best endeavours.

I have in this statement, and in the letter that I have published today, set out, frankly and candidly, my view of the legal effect of the new instruments that the Government have agreed with the Union. However, the matters of law affecting withdrawal can only inform what is essentially a political decision that each of us must make. This is a question not of the lawfulness of the Government’s action but of the prudence, as a matter of policy and political judgment, of entering into an international agreement on the terms proposed.

I am grateful to the Attorney General for his statement and for advance sight of it.

The Attorney General made it clear in his original advice of 13 November on the backstop protocol that:

“In international law the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place, in whole or in part”,

and he was right, because article 178 of the withdrawal agreement is clear that the remedy of suspension of obligations is only ever meant to be temporary to secure compliance to the agreement and not as a gateway to a full exit.

So people quite rightly ask now what has changed. In her Strasbourg statement the Prime Minister said the joint interpretative instrument makes three changes. She said, first, that the UK can challenge the EU in an arbitration panel if the EU is found in breach of good faith and suspend the backstop. But that was already in article 178 of the withdrawal agreement; it is not new. Secondly, the Prime Minister said there is a legal commitment that whatever replaces the backstop does not need to replicate it, but the January letter of Presidents Tusk and Juncker said:

“Any arrangements which supersede the Protocol are not required to replicate its provisions in any respect”;

it is not new. Thirdly, the Prime Minister said it entrenches in legally binding form the commitments made in the exchange of letters with Presidents Tusk and Juncker in January, but on 14 January the Prime Minister told this House:

“My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General has also written to me today confirming that in the light of the joint response from the Presidents of the European Council and the Commission, these conclusions ‘would have legal force in international law’.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 824.]

That is not new either.

I am going to take the Attorney General at his word, because he said in his Mail on Sunday interview:

“I will not change my opinion unless I’m sure there is no legal risk of us being indefinitely detained in the backstop.”

I am going to be fair to the Attorney General: he has not changed his opinion. Let us read his advice to this House at paragraph 19:

“the legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have, at least while the fundamental circumstances remained the same, no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”

I say to the Attorney General that paragraphs 15 to 19 of his advice constitute seven sentences that destroy the Government’s strategy of recent weeks—that sink the Government’s case that they had any chance of securing a right, under international law, to unilaterally exit the protocol’s arrangements. We have gone from having “a nothing has changed” Prime Minister to having “a nothing has changed” Attorney General.

In fairness to the Attorney General it is not just his view: it is the view of a number of other respected lawyers, including Professor Philippe Sands, Professor Sir David Edward and the Government’s own former counter-terror watchdog, now Lord Anderson QC. The Attorney General knows that speaking about reasonable endeavours and bad faith is one thing, but he can confirm the reality, which is that the new documents do nothing about the situation when the talks with the EU are at a stalemate not because of bad faith, but simply because both sides cannot reach an agreement.

Proving bad faith is extraordinarily difficult, and the Attorney General points that out in paragraph 16 of his own advice. The strongest remedy in this withdrawal agreement, even with this document, remains a temporary suspension. Indeed, we need only look at his own legal advice to see that, at paragraph 9, which speaks of

“suspension of all or parts of the Protocol, including the backstop, until there is satisfactory compliance.”

Trade talks can break down for a variety of reasons. For two parties to act on the basis of their own interests is not bad faith, and the Attorney General knows it. In these circumstances, despite any assurances about the temporary nature of the backstop, the reality is that it can endure indefinitely. Ninety-two days after the Prime Minister abandoned the first meaningful vote, in this Attorney General’s view

“the legal risk remains unchanged”.

What the Attorney General was asked to do, and what the Prime Minister promised in this House on 29 January—to change the text of the withdrawal agreement—simply is not possible. He is a lawyer; he is not a magician. Does not this whole episode of recent weeks show that when national leadership is required, this Prime Minister, as always, puts party before country?

The hon. Gentleman asks me about my opinion. He knows that my opinion is that there is no ultimate unilateral right out of this arrangement. The risk of that continues, but the question is whether it is a likelihood, politically. One thing that we did not hear from him is what the Labour party’s position is on the backstop. Does they accept the backstop? Do they think it is a good thing? If they think it is a good thing, why on earth are they criticising it? Or is this just the usual political opportunism that one expects to hear from the Front Bench of the Labour party?

The hon. Gentleman says to me that there is nothing new in this agreement, but that is not so, and some of the authorities that he has quoted are saying that this morning. There are material new obligations—for example, in relation to alternative arrangements. There is now a heavy emphasis upon a swift and expedited track to negotiate them, and it would be unconscionable if, having made that emphasis and having said that time was of the essence, the European Union simply refused to consider or adopt reasonable proposals relating to alternative arrangements. That is new. What this document does is address the risk that we could be kept in the backstop by the bad faith and deliberate manipulation of the Union. This makes significant reductions in that risk.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that it would be a good thing if we could hear from the Labour party just occasionally not only political shenanigans but some sincere engagement with the real issues that this withdrawal agreement now raises. The question now is: do we assume our responsibilities as a House and allow not only this country—yearning as it is for us to move on—but the entire continent of Europe to move on? To do that, the time has come now to vote for this deal.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to his place. He has shown absolutely that he is what he should be: an independent adviser to the Government. I congratulate him on that, because that is exactly what he should be. Given the clarity of his advice, I want to ask him a particular question. As he will know, I and others have spent some time looking at and working on alternative arrangements. I would like to clarify exactly what force he thinks those would have. As he said just now, there would be an obligation for the European Union to “consider or adopt” such proposals if they were made in a reasonable way. How does that square with his paragraph 16, in which he says

“it would be highly unlikely that the United Kingdom could take advantage of the remedies available to it for such a breach under the Withdrawal Agreement”?

My right hon. Friend has got paragraph 16 wrong, if I may respectfully say so. What it says was that I advised in the past that that was so. What I now consider, at paragraph 17, is:

“that the legally binding provisions of the Joint Instrument and the content of the Unilateral Declaration reduce the risk”

that we would be held involuntarily and by the bad faith. Why? Because these new provisions make it easier to facilitate an effective claim to the arbitrator that that conduct is being exhibited. Those are cumulative. If one looks at the agreement as a whole, one sees that the obligations on the Union are to treat with urgency the negotiation of alternative arrangements. There is a new obligation that has not existed before in any document that the Union has agreed to, which is that it must aim to do this within 12 months of our withdrawal. That is an important obligation, because it makes time of the essence. If that deadline is passed, as in any legal jurisprudence on such matters relating in a domestic context to breach of contract, for example, that means that the parties must demonstrate that they are intensifying their efforts. If they do not, they could be in breach of their best endeavours obligation.

I start by saying that I have respect and sympathy for the Attorney General. The role of the law officer is not easy, particularly when he or she is a party political appointment, but he must nevertheless from time to time burst his party’s political bubble in the interests of professional integrity and independence of advice. Make no mistake, that is what the Attorney General has done today.

Today, the emperor has no clothes; none at all—not even a codpiece. For all the yards of flannel in paragraphs 4 to 10 of the Attorney General’s legal opinion and in today’s statement, it is quite clear, as the shadow Attorney General said, from paragraph 19 of the legal opinion that the legal position previously outlined by the Attorney General remains the same. The measures therefore fall very short of what was demanded by the Brady amendment and very short of what was promised to those in the European Research Group, which I am sure will not have been lost upon them or their lawyers.

The withdrawal agreement has not been changed, and that the Attorney General should admit that that is so is not surprising given the weight of legal opinion about the measures overnight. Some Conservative Members will not take my legal opinion for it. I am unsure why, but perhaps they think that a lawyer who is a member of the SNP is not to be trusted. At all events, I am sure that they will put some weight on the opinion of my good friend Lord Anderson of Ipswich, the former Government independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. He provided a detailed opinion overnight—[Interruption.] I hear someone muttering from the Conservative Benches that he is being paid by the people’s vote campaign, but that person ought to be aware that it is the professional duty of any senior counsel to give an objective, dispassionate opinion. Perhaps the person muttering from a sedentary position should not transfer their own motives on to someone as honourable as Lord Anderson.

I will ask the Attorney General whether he agrees with me and with a number of Lord Anderson’s points. Lord Anderson says that the measures obtained by the Prime Minister

“do not allow the UK to terminate the backstop in the event that negotiations over its future relationship with the EU cannot be brought to a satisfactory conclusion”.

That is correct, and I am sure that the Attorney General will agree. Lord Anderson also says that the measures

“do not provide the UK with a right to terminate the backstop at a time of its choosing, or indeed at any time, without the agreement of the EU.”

Lord Anderson is right that there is no unilateral exit here. He then goes on to say:

“The furthest they go is to reiterate the possibility that the backstop might be suspended”—

not got out of, but suspended—

“in extreme circumstances of bad faith on the part of the EU which”

he says

“are highly unlikely to be demonstrated.

Lord Anderson also points out:

“This was already apparent from the Withdrawal Agreement, and had been acknowledged in the Attorney General’s previous legal advice.”

Does the Attorney General agree with all those points in Lord Anderson’s independent, impartial, objective opinion? Does he further agree that in fact nothing has changed and that the Prime Minister has yet again failed to deliver on what she has promised?

What I hope will not be lost on my hon. and right hon. Friends is why the hon. and learned Lady is insisting and pressing upon them the facts and matters that she has just been drawing to their attention. It could be, I wonder, that there is some ulterior motive in her concern about the absence of a unilateral exit mechanism in all circumstances.

Turning to the opinion of Lord Anderson, who is always worthy of the most careful attention and the greatest of respect—as anybody of his distinction should be listened to—I take issue with some of his comments. For example—my opinion sets this out and other lawyers are commenting to that effect this morning—the hon. and learned Lady does no justice to the fact that these measures and improvements do facilitate, and mean that there is a reduction of risk in, our being able to prove and demonstrate bad faith or want of best endeavours. She says that we could not terminate, but there is in fact in my opinion a clear pathway to termination.

As the hon. and learned Lady knows, I wrote in my opinion that if in the circumstance that we got a declaration from the arbitral tribunal that there had been a lack of best endeavours, having regard to the accelerated pace of negotiation which this new agreement now imposes, we could then move to suspend our obligations, if we wished to do so, under the protocol. If that suspension was prolonged, we could invoke article 20 to argue that it was no longer necessary because the inaction of the European Union demonstrated that it must think that it was no longer necessary, and that could lead to termination. It is therefore not entirely true to say that there is no way in which the provisions could be terminated. I say to the hon. and learned Lady that suspension, in these circumstances, is as effective as termination, because the only way in which the EU could restore the position would be for it to come back to the negotiating table with genuinely new proposals.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his statement. I have no reason to disagree with his conclusion in paragraph 19 of his opinion, and I commend him for standing up for his office and speaking truth to power. However, I have one query about paragraph 7 of his advice, in which he describes the joint instrument as representing

“materially new legal obligations and commitments”.

He will of course be familiar with article 31, paragraph 2 of the Vienna convention, which says that such an instrument can have legal force and be binding only in the sense that the parties cannot later alter or deny what they have agreed and that it is not a treaty in itself. In those circumstances, is it not the case that the breaching of the best endeavours obligation in itself makes no difference? The only difference is if there is bad faith, and that in fact was contained in the original agreement that we signed.

I do not agree with my right hon. and learned Friend, although I listen most carefully to him, as ever. The best endeavours duty was in the withdrawal agreement originally, but what this does is to firm and strengthen the context in which an allegation of best endeavours or bad faith would be made, because it sets an accelerated pace and commits—I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend has looked or will look at this—the EU to specific operational commitments about how to deliver that obligation. Those are new agreements, and they are couched in the language of agreement. He knows, as a very distinguished lawyer, that one cannot always trust the label; one has to look at the substance.

Can the Attorney General confirm that in order to get to the point at which the UK might be able to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol, it would have to, first, persuade the arbitration panel to agree with its case and, secondly, accept that any issue of EU law arising from the case that the UK had argued would have to be referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union and that any ruling of the CJEU on that matter would be binding on the panel, the EU and, most importantly for this discussion, the UK?

Of course I can confirm all those things, which are self-evident in the agreement. May I just point out to the right hon. Gentleman that although I am sure it is a clever forensic point, the circumstance in which a point of European Union law would arise in connection with the best endeavours and bad faith clauses is difficult to envisage? The reality is that it is a straightforward question of fact: is the European Union moving with the urgency and pace, to the procedural timetables and according to the procedural steps that this agreement now enforces?

The right hon. Gentleman is an honest politician, and he cannot look these things in the face and say that they mean nothing. These are important amplifications and clarifications of the duty of best endeavours. I quite agree with him, as I very much doubt we would ever get to an arbitral tribunal, because what these duties, new clarifications and amplifications do is set the framework for people’s conduct within the negotiation. It is about the impact on their behaviour and conduct. Very rare is the case in which one would get to an arbitral tribunal. What matters is the framework of obligations and responsibilities, and those have materially tightened on the European Union.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his opinion, which is not only for the Government, I would stress, but for Parliament and for the voters. The substance of the backstop issue to which he has just referred is the legal, constitutional and, therefore, political status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, which cannot be put at risk.

My right hon. and learned Friend refers to a reduced risk of the UK being “indefinitely” detained in the protocol, but he adds that, ultimately, there is

“no internationally lawful means of exiting”

unless both the EU and the UK agree. Does he therefore appreciate, on his own terms, that this fundamental legal impediment trumps political considerations and that, therefore, there would be insufficient protection for Northern Ireland to continue as part of the United Kingdom?

I do not agree. My hon. Friend knows we have a difference of opinion, and I hope that he will move towards my position. I still hope that might be so, and I say that because one has to look at the mutual incentives and disincentives for both parties to stay in the arrangement. I made this point in December and, for the reasons I advanced in December and in my November opinion, the incentives or disincentives for the European Union are as profound, if not greater, to get us out of the backstop than to keep us in it. That is what I firmly believe. He may disagree, but that is what I believe.

That is why I have taken the political judgment that this withdrawal agreement needs to be supported but, in saying that, these improvements do make a difference. In the last line of my advice, I say there can be no lawful exit unless there is a fundamental change of circumstance. It is extremely important to remember that there is always a right to terminate a treaty unilaterally if circumstances fundamentally change. There is no question but that we have a right to exit if those circumstances apply.

Those of us who remember some infamously politicised legal opinions, as with the Iraq war, will want to acknowledge the Attorney General’s total integrity and independence, but can he explain to a non-lawyer how respect for the international rule of law is enhanced by a unilateral declaration to break it?

The right hon. Gentleman seeks to give with one hand and take with the other. With the greatest of diffidence and respect, he is not quite right. The unilateral declaration is not incompatible with international law. It reserves the United Kingdom’s right to take all measures available to it in circumstances where the talks have broken down as a result of a breach of article 5, which is the good faith duty. It reinforces and further stresses the United Kingdom’s right to take measures to withdraw from the arrangements if there is a breach of good faith.

My right hon. and learned Friend notes in his opinion that the unilateral declaration is not an agreed document. Can he say whether efforts were made to obtain the agreement of the European Union to that declaration? If so, why was such agreement withheld?

No unilateral declaration is worth the paper it is written on if it is objected to. My understanding is that it is not objected to and that it will be deposited alongside the withdrawal agreement and, therefore, will carry legal weight under article 31 of the Vienna convention.

I join others in commending the Attorney General, and I pay tribute to him for his dealings with us and for holding entirely to his word in delivering a totally objective and fair legal analysis and opinion on whatever came back. I pay tribute to him publicly, in addition to what I have said to him privately in that regard.

In relation to reducing the risk of being held in the backstop by the EU acting in bad faith or for want of best endeavours, does the Attorney General agree with paragraph 29 of his previous advice that all the EU

“would have to do to show good faith would be to consider the UK’s proposals, even if they ultimately rejected them. This could go on repeatedly without such conduct giving rise to bad faith or failure”?

If it is not a question of bad faith, and if it is just a question of the two sides not being able to reach agreement, he says in paragraph 19 of today’s legal opinion that the “legal risk remains unchanged”.

We already know what the Irish Government and others see as the ultimate destination for Northern Ireland—the backstop is the bottom line. From what the Attorney General is saying today, provided there is no bad faith, the fact is that Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom could be trapped if the EU does not agree with the United Kingdom to a superseding agreement.

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question, which I will deal with point by point. First, my opinion has changed in connection to this country’s ability to prove bad faith if it occurred. There is now a new contextual framework for judging whether the other party is using best endeavours or good faith.

Time has been made of the essence in specific connection to negotiating alternative arrangements. A specific work track and a specific timetable are set out, and it would be unconscionable, as I say in my opinion—I forget the paragraph, but the right hon. Gentleman will have it—if having said to this country that it will set up a specific, discrete work track on alternative arrangements, which are defined in this new document as meaning facilitative techniques, technologies and customs procedures, and if having set up a timeline for negotiating those alternative arrangements by saying “12 months, or we must intensify our efforts,” it never agreed to use a single one, and if it refused every proposal reasonably adjusted to its core interests. That would be extraordinary.

I say in my written opinion, and I stand by it, that it would be a potential breach of best endeavours and good faith. Best endeavours are now defined in this joint instrument as requiring the EU to consider adverse interests and matters that are adverse to its interests. Even if these facilitative technological and customs measures were adverse to the EU’s interests, the duty still requires it to consider them. Therefore if there were a pattern of refusal, a systematic refusal, to consider these alternative arrangements, we would have a case before the arbitration panel, and it would be a potentially serious breach of good faith.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman with all candour that I believe that, and he knows I would not say it if I did not mean it. It is there in my written opinion, and I urge him to consider it.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that although any practical lawyer will know that legal risks can seldom be totally eliminated from any agreement of any kind, what the parties must look at is the practical risk of something occurring? Does he not agree that what has been achieved markedly diminishes the practical risk, which is the key consideration we need to bear in mind when looking at the broader context of what is at stake here?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend; the legal ingredient in any political question must be subordinate, and particularly in connection with this political question. The fact is that there are always legal risks of various kinds. We walk among legal risks all the time—some of us more than others, perhaps—but we do not determine our behaviour by them. We take practical judgments every minute of the day, every day of the week about whether the legal risks we are engaged in are ones that are worth taking. I say to my hon. Friends, as I say to all hon. Members, that we must come to a decision on this question today. I urge the House to consider carefully this: there is no real legal basis to be seriously troubled that the European Union will never reach agreement with us. If it occurs through bad faith, we have further improvements in the deal now. But just because we cannot reach agreement, when the alternative arrangements are now cemented into this deal in a manner they have not been before? I think not, in all candour.

In layman’s and laywoman’s terms, nothing has changed but something has been added: a year to get the timescale right, and if the Government cannot do that, they are going to try really hard for the next year. It is not possible to unilaterally stop a hard border, but it is possible for the Attorney General single-handedly to admit that all he has done today is amplify, not amend, the original deal that Parliament voted down. To say anything else really is a matter of bad faith.

I know that the hon. Lady knows that I have not attempted to say something—[Interruption.] Of course there has been no amending of the treaty, but there has been a supplementary agreement that amplifies, extends and deepens the obligations within it.

indicated dissent.

The hon. Lady can shake her head, but she has to look at the wording—at the text. If I have got something wrong, she will no doubt tell me, but the fact is that there are materially new obligations here in relation to the pace and timetable, and in relation to binding legal commitments on alternative arrangements. These set the context against which and within which the duties in respect of bad faith and best endeavours will be measured. That is a significant difference to the deal.

Paragraph 23 of the political declaration makes it clear that we would

“build and improve on the single customs territory provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement”.

We know what the EU understands that to mean. In good faith and with best endeavours, it understands it to mean a customs union, as Dan Hannan MEP reminded us earlier. So is it not the case that if we negotiate under this agreement, we will either find ourselves trapped indefinitely in the backstop, because the EU is acting “in good faith”, or have to agree a customs union, contrary to our manifesto?

I simply say to my hon. Friend that I really do not believe so. Why not? Because the commitments now cemented on alternative arrangements, which require a separate negotiating track, with a timetable to negotiate them, are now built in so that, as I have said in my written opinion, it would be extraordinary if the EU declined to adopt any such measures. It would be extraordinary, so I do not accept that the backstop is the base for any future arrangement. Let me give another reason why it is not. Built into the political declaration is an independent free trade policy, and we cannot have an independent free trade policy and have a customs union. Also built into it is no free movement. Does the Labour party support free movement now? It speaks with all sorts of voices. But the political declaration says there is none, and we cannot belong to the single market without free movement. So I say to my hon. Friend that I understand where these fears come from, but we must be bold and courageous, and we must move forward, for the sake of our country.

I, too, commend the Attorney General for his work and his efforts. I believe he has acted in all good faith. I also pay tribute to the Prime Minister, because there is no doubt that she has done her best to try to solve this problem and come back with something, but she simply has not been able to, as many of us had predicted. I am an old criminal barrister—[Interruption.] Who said, “Lock her up?” In all seriousness, criminal barristers tend to speak in plain, simple language, because we address juries. Does the Attorney General agree with this simple assessment of the joint instrument, which I have read: it does not change the withdrawal agreement, and it offers no new treaty or obligations at a treaty level? Will he also confirm that this is the end of the road—there are now no more negotiations with the EU, despite all his best efforts and those of the Government?

I do not agree with the right hon. Lady. This instrument will be deposited with the withdrawal agreement, and it contains material new obligations, which are couched in the language of agreement. That represents an agreement between the parties not only about the interpretation, but about specific operational commitments. This has a standing equal to the withdrawal agreement, including in its material commitments, particularly those relating to obligations of an operational character. So I do not agree with her; what she says is not right. We have to look at the substance, not the label.

The right hon. Lady asks whether negotiations are at an end. Yes, they are at an end. This is the moment of decision. We now have to take the fork in the road, and we are going to have to assume our responsibilities for it.

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his work, and on the splendid candour of his statement and comments this morning. I also congratulate the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on getting alternative arrangements and an implementation date into the text. If, however, despite the very best endeavours in negotiations and the very best of faith, agreement is not reached in time for the end of December 2020, what can an independent, sovereign UK do? If a decision is made at the political level that the game is not worth the candle, can the UK walk away?

As my right hon. Friend knows, if the parties, using best endeavours, in complete sincerity with co-operation and good faith, are simply unable to agree anything, not even a few alternative arrangements or a partial agreement—the subsequent agreement referred to in the protocol can of course be a stand-alone agreement—the UK has no unilateral exit right to leave, unless there were a fundamental change of circumstance under article 62 of the Vienna convention on the law of treaties. My right hon Friend knows that, but the question is: is it likely? What this deal has now done is place the burden on the EU to negotiate those alternative arrangements, as a result of his work, in part. I say to him that he should trust in himself, trust in the British people and trust in our ability to deliver a good deal. We can use the new contexts in this agreement, and I believe we will secure a good deal for the Northern Irish border.

I thank the Attorney General for his candour and for sticking to his integrity in the advice he has provided, which very much lines up with Lord Anderson’s advice that the backstop may accordingly “endure indefinitely”. Lord Anderson also says that the interpretive declaration is not a

“clearly worded, legally binding, ‘treaty-level’ clause which unambiguously”

overrides the text. The Attorney General has said repeatedly throughout this process that this is about politics, not law, so will he tell us whether at any point over the weekend he offered the Prime Minister preliminary advice that she would not be getting the advice she wanted for the politics of today?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that I am afraid I am not permitted by the Law Officers’ convention to say whether I gave advice or what advice that would be.

Does the Attorney General agree that in law and in life, it is very rare for any lawyer to give a 100% guarantee on how watertight a particular agreement might be, notwithstanding the fact that that lawyer may well have great confidence in that agreement?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that. With the law, we are not able to put something into a test tube, hold it over a Bunsen burner and, if it turns green, get the answer. The law is a question of judgment, and it is always blended with political considerations or, in a commercial context, with commercial considerations. The preponderance of the two form a single judgment. It is my judgment, as my hon. Friend knows, that this risk is a calculated one, but one that we can now take. I firmly believe that these new improvements make that risk more acceptable and easier for the House to take.

May I press the Attorney General on the status of the joint instrument? Last night, the Minister for the Cabinet Office claimed that

“the joint instrument has equal status in law to the withdrawal agreement itself”—[Official Report, 11 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 132.]

and that they both have

“the status of treaties under international law”.—[Official Report, 11 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 135.]

However, legal advice that I have seen says:

“The Joint Instrument is not incorporated into the Withdrawal Agreement, it is not a Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement and it is not a treaty in its own right.”

Will the Attorney General clarify whether the Minister for the Cabinet Office inadvertently misled the House last night?

I would need to see the hon. Lady’s quotation in detail. The position is that if you agree and put your name to a joint instrument of this kind, you are bound by it. You are bound by it as to its interpretation and, if it expresses agreement to specific operational commitments, as this one does, you are bound by it on those, because it is an agreement that you will then carry out those specific commitments. It is an agreement, so we should not get hung up on labels. The question is: what is its substance? It is binding.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that article 31 of the Vienna convention makes it perfectly clear that this protocol does have legal force, is binding and is of equal status to the treaty? Does he also agree that substantial, legally binding changes have been delivered, and that it is wrong to read just one paragraph of his legal advice—one has to read each paragraph of it? When it comes to paragraph 17 of his advice, my right hon. and learned Friend makes it clear that this is a substantial change in the level of risk.

I think I had better just say that I agree with that one.

The Attorney General’s argument seems to hinge on this matter of “highly unlikely”. I do not know whether this is his reading of recent history, but it seems to me that everything that I thought was highly unlikely five, six or seven years ago has now come to pass. Should we not be worrying about what may be likely over the next few years? After all, many of the Governments in Europe may change and the European Commission President will certainly change, so the highly unlikely may indeed come to pass. I have a sneaking memory of a conversation that the Attorney General and I had once in the Lobby, around three years ago. I asked him, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if you should become Attorney General?”, and he said, “Oh no, that’s highly unlikely.” [Laughter.]

And so it was under that particular Prime Minister! I was telling the hon. Gentleman the complete truth, as I am telling him it now. I have forgotten what the other question was—that was a betrayal of robing room talk. I am so taken aback by that question that I think I had better sit down.

My right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out that much of what is being said is political as well as legal. Will he therefore set out for the House what penalties might fall upon this country if a future Parliament, which obviously cannot be bound, were to decide to resile from the commitments under the backstop?

Well, my hon. Friend will know that as an Attorney General I simply could not give countenance to the idea that this country would break its international legal obligations. As I have pointed out to the House, there is a right for the United Kingdom to terminate this agreement. If fundamental circumstances change, in the view of the United Kingdom, it would attempt to resolve the matter within the joint committee and it would attempt to resolve it politically, but if, ultimately, with the sovereign right of this House and of the British Government at the time, the United Kingdom took the view that those fundamental circumstances had indeed changed, it would have an undoubted legal right to withdrawal from any treaty.

Let us be clear about these kinds of absolute interpretations of black-letter text. A sovereign state has the right to withdraw if a treaty is no longer compatible with its fundamental interests or, to put it a different way, if fundamental circumstances have changed. I would say that apart from that, of course this country could resile from its commitments, but it would be unwise and it would not be in the tradition of this country to do so. In those circumstances, it is perfectly true that the only remedies the Union would have would be to take countermeasures, and no doubt it would pollute the atmosphere for fruitful relationships between us, which is precisely why this country will never do it, and neither would the European Union.

I am not a lawyer, and neither are millions of people watching today. I obviously defer to the Attorney General’s advice, but will he tell people why the United Kingdom, a sovereign country, would think of signing up to anything—we signed up to the European Union and at least there was a way out of it through article 50, although it has taken a long time—that does not allow us simply to say, “This is not working, we are not going to sign up to this and we are leaving”?

We have made a solemn pledge to the people of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that the border will be guaranteed never to be a hard border. That required the United Kingdom to say that in all normal circumstances we will not depart from that pledge. I repeat the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg): in the case of a fundamental change of circumstance, which is ultimately the sovereign right of this House and the Government to determine, the United Kingdom could withdraw, pursuant to customary international law. So it is not true to say that there is not ultimately the right of this House and the Government of the country at the time to exercise their discretion to do so in those circumstances. But in every other circumstance, we have said to the people of Northern Ireland, “We will ensure that your lives will be able to continue as they do now at the border.” I say that that act was worthy of this House, worthy of the Government and worthy of the British people, and it is one that is worthy of support.

My right hon. and learned Friend has just said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) that the United Kingdom would never do that, so why did he raise the possibility of our withdrawing from a treaty under the Vienna convention in the first place?

No, no, no. What I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) was that we would not do it in breach of the law. We are permitted, in a case of fundamental change of circumstances, to withdraw by the law. If such a change of circumstance came about—either because of some fundamental political change in Northern Ireland or some fundamental change of circumstance going to the essential basis of the agreement—then we would have the right to withdraw. But in all normal, envisageable and predictable circumstances, particularly while we are negotiating a subsequent agreement to the pace and accelerated timetable that this instrument now requires, we would not do so and it would be wrong to do so—wrong because it would be a breach of our obligations and wrong because this is a law-abiding country.

The Attorney General said that it is highly unlikely that through the best endeavours they cannot reach an agreement. For the past four months, the Government have been in Brussels trying to replace the backstop with alternative measures and they have come back empty-handed. The negotiations have not delivered, despite the best endeavours. Is it not the case that the very situation that he describes in two years’ time as being highly unlikely is the situation we are in right now?

No, no, no. We have not been attempting to secure alternative arrangements now. We have been putting forward the fact that, in the future, all those alternative arrangements are likely to exist, so the European Union has responded by saying, “We will set up a new, special negotiating track, we will negotiate with an increased urgency and to a new timetable and we will implement these”—they have defined them—“customs procedures and technologies and so on.” So it is not right to say that the same situation arises now. These systems will be developed over time and that is the purpose of the working group that the Union has agreed to set up with this country.

I thank the Attorney General for being so patient when I have been working on this unilateral declaration for the past two months and I thank him for including it in the final agreement, but may I ask him a detailed question because the devil is in the detail? There is no doubt, having worked with academic opinion, that a unilateral declaration is absolutely binding as long as it is deposited at the time the treaty is ratified. The unilateral declaration makes it clear that there is nothing to stop the UK leaving the backstop if talks break down, but it has to be a unilateral, conditional, interpretative declaration; that is what international law states. We are signing and agreeing to this withdrawal agreement only on condition—that is why the word “conditional” is important—that, if the talks break down, we can exit. So can the Attorney General now use the word “conditional” to reassure the House?

First, may I say to my right hon. Friend that I am extremely grateful for the dialogue that we have had and he was, in no small part, the author of the seeds of this idea. Much of the material that he and other distinguished lawyers have been able to contribute has led to the proposal that we have now adopted. But I say to him that the unilateral declaration in this case does not need to say “conditional” because it is not objected to by the Union and, if it is not objected to, and the withdrawal agreement is ratified by the Union, it becomes binding.

I hope that the Attorney General can respond to me today without any reference to either his underwear or his genitalia. Last week, he said that we seek

“legally-binding changes to the backstop which ensure that it cannot be indefinite”.

Today, he says that the legal risk remains unchanged. All he is able to offer us is a new work schedule—a sort of glorified to do list. If, as he keeps saying, time is of the essence, has not the Prime Minister wasted the last two months?

I will try to obey the hon. Lady’s strictures about comments that I have made before. May I say to her that that is not quite right? I have said that the legal risk is reduced. The legal risk of being held in the backstop by bad faith or by want of best endeavours has reduced. It has reduced because of significant improvements which, as I have said, set the context and benchmark for the enforceability of those important duties. But it is absolutely true, as she rightly says, that the risk of remaining in the backstop absent any fundamental change of circumstance, if no bad faith or if no want of best endeavours is present, remains the same.

I, too, am not a lawyer, but the Attorney General is doing a very good job of clarifying to me and to the House the important improvements that the negotiating team has brought. A lawyer I know characterised paragraph 19 of his letter as

“a minimal legal risk unlikely to be crystallised”.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with that opinion?

Yes, I do. Given what is at stake for the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, for the credit and faith of the European Union, which will be on the line, and for our ability to measure its performance against the detailed timetables and procedures that are now in place, I simply do not believe that we will be unable to reach any agreement with them. I repeat: it is perfectly possible to approach this in stages—to agree several agreements. We will be able to agree something over the next two or three years and the first priority, which is set out in this instrument, is the subsequent agreement replacing the backstop.

My preference would be an arrangement that does not necessitate a backstop. For all the words that the Attorney General has used, is it not the case that none of these things—the joint instrument, the unilateral declaration and the change to the declaration—facilitates an unconditional unilateral withdrawal by the UK from the backstop? More than that, for all the words that he has used, we will still end up paying a divorce bill of more than £50 billion, in part in return for a political declaration that has no legal force whatever. That is the key point.

The hon. Gentleman is not right about that. Under article 184 of the withdrawal agreement, there is a legal duty on the Union and the UK to negotiate a deal that is in line, and according to, the political declaration. He asks, is there any unconditional right to withdraw? With respect, I have answered that question. The only circumstance in which there would be an unconditional right to withdraw is if there were a fundamental change of circumstances pursuant to customary international law.

I commend my right hon. and learned Friend for the way he is pursuing the remit of his office. He is, of course, right that there is a political dimension to the decision that we will all have to make this evening, but may I ask him this question? He has confirmed today that, if there were a fundamental change of circumstances, this country would have the right to walk away from the agreement, but can he also confirm that, if that were to happen and we did walk away, we could take Northern Ireland with us as a member of the United Kingdom, thereby extracting it from the customs union within the EU?

Let me make it clear: the United Kingdom is the United Kingdom, it includes Northern Ireland and there is no circumstance in which the Government of this country, and certainly not a Conservative Government, will ever leave Northern Ireland behind, subject to the obligations under the Belfast agreement. That has been proposed, as my hon. Friend knows. It has been proposed that we should have a termination right for GB only and the Prime Minister explained why that was unacceptable.

The Attorney General says that the joint instrument and the content of the unilateral declaration relating to the withdrawal agreement

“reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily”

held in the backstop in the event of bad faith, but surely that was only ever a very limited risk. Is it not true that the far greater risk of being held in the backstop indefinitely is not as a result of the failure of either party to act in good faith, but because of intractable differences? In such circumstances, is it not right that the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should have the confidence that measures that they can trust will be in place to prevent a hard border, and that the backstop would be exited upon a new agreement being reached? Does not that make perfect sense?

It does make perfect sense. I have to say that I would have preferred to have seen a right of termination, mitigated and graduated, fairly balancing and apportioning risk, and only useable in a last resort, but the Union was not willing to agree to such a reasonable—and what I considered to be moderate—proposal. I agree with the hon. Lady, which is why I voted for the deal. It is sensible that that assurance can be given, and that is why the British Government have given it. I would say, though, that best endeavours is not—particularly now, with the context heightened and the benchmarks tightened—a meaningless duty, because best endeavours requires that a party should consider proposals that are contrary to its interests, and it may have to accept them. A party cannot go on refusing something that requires a reasonable adjustment in its position.

Good faith; best endeavours; trust. May I tell my right hon. and learned Friend that they have run out? Many in this country do not trust the EU, and I am sad to say that many in this country do not trust many MPs in this place to deliver what the vote told this country to do. Surely the only option now is to get a clean break, leave on 29 March and get our country back.

I understand my hon. Friend’s frustrations, but I do not agree with his language. I have found those with whom we are doing business in the European Union to be perfectly reasonable and rational people, and I have no complaint about the manner in which negotiations have been conducted—they have always been conducted with cordiality and civility on both sides—so I do not believe that we cannot trust them to reach a deal, because it is in the interests of the Union itself.

Had the Attorney General been instructed to demonstrate that it is possible to walk away from the backstop by clients at his usual, generous commercial rates, would he have advised them to save their money?

I am not convinced that I fully understood the question, perhaps because I did it too much justice and thought it might be a sensible one. The truth is that I doubt I agree with it.

May I place on the record at the outset that, whatever one may think of the issues at stake, the integrity and honesty of the Attorney General are absolutely above question? I commend him for his approach. Much of this agreement requires consideration of the concept of bad faith, so will he please outline what circumstances would constitute bad faith and how the UK might prove them, bearing in mind that, as he will know, international arbitrators are loth to find that a sovereign state such as the UK or a respected body such as the EU have acted in bad faith? Is it not the case that, were the EU to continue to propose ideas that were in good faith but unacceptable to the UK, such as a customs union, these proposals would not assist us?

No, I do not agree. The position is more nuanced than that. The pattern of refusing to accept reasonable proposals such as alternative arrangements that could not be said to compromise fundamental interests at the border would be raised immediately—a prima facie question. A pattern of consistent refusal would raise a prima facie question over the best endeavours and good faith clause. As my hon. Friend will have seen, some of these provisions are already in the joint instrument, including systematic conduct, declining to consider, declining to be flexible and declining to consider adverse interests. These best endeavours duties are real duties that are contained in commercial contracts all the time. They are litigated and brought to court, as he will know. We must not allow our fears to run away with us. We need to trust ourselves. We can make the leverage of the backstop as powerful an argument for them not to remain in it as it is for us.

Does not all this hand-wringing over the backstop reflect the hubris of those who thought they could reconcile the irreconcilable—the alchemists who believed that they could conjure up this pretence of Brexit at the same time as a frictionless, open Irish border? Have we not finally reached the end of the road for the spinners, peddlers and blaggers in the leave campaign who stooped to lying about this being the easiest thing in the world?

Of course, claims are made on both sides of the argument in any election or battle before the electorate. I remember some pretty exaggerated ones being made on the hon. Gentleman’s side of the argument, to be frank. If there is a serious point lying beneath that stream of adjectives, I would have to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman in one respect: the enemy of the interests of this country is dangerous oversimplification of the complexity of the problems that we face. If that is the point that resides beneath his question, I would agree. We cannot underestimate the complexity of separating ourselves from 45 years of organic, legal and other integration with the European Union, but this withdrawal agreement does not underestimate that; it addresses the issues at a complex level, secures rights, and fairly apportions the dues and obligations. It is a deal that we need in order to achieve the first stage of that separation.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, and I am extremely grateful to the Attorney General and all who have participated in these exchanges, but we must now move on. Some dozens of colleagues wish to speak in the main debate and I have to make a judgment about the importance of now proceeding.

Hansard

 

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