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Home Archive for category "Brexit"

Sovereignty has “Rock-all” to do with it… or has it? What’s at stake in the recent diplomatic spat between Scotland and Ireland?

Published on July 8, 2019        Author: 

Rockall, the tiny, remote, rocky outcrop in the northeast Atlantic – a ghostly peak of an extinct volcano – has periodically appeared in the news at the centre of a longstanding dispute between the UK and Ireland (as well as, more peripherally, Denmark (Faroe Islands) and Iceland too). This dispute has rarely flared up publicly over recent years, as it has largely been subsumed as part of ongoing, unresolved negotiations surrounding extended continental shelf claims of the four states concerned. However, earlier this month, the Scottish government threatened enforcement action against Irish vessels which it claimed were illegally fishing within Scottish territorial waters surrounding Rockall. Ireland immediately responded to this threat by denying Scotland’s right to take any such action. It seemingly based its position on (i) a rejection of UK sovereignty over the islet and, (ii) the argument that such sovereignty (even if it existed) over uninhabited ‘rocks’ like Rockall was irrelevant for the UK’s claimed maritime entitlement. Although any enforcement action has yet to take place, the underlying diplomatic feud appears not to be going away any time soon. Indeed, following a meeting on Friday 28 June between the Irish Prime Minister (the Taoiseach) and Scottish First Minister, there has been an agreement to intensify discussions in light of the diplomatic impasse.

The Scottish position is perhaps explicable in a pre-Brexit (and pro-independence) political climate, where sovereign rights over natural resources will play a critical part – a theme I briefly return to at the end of this post. However, Ireland’s counterargument appears to be built on a misapprehension of the applicable law, both over territory and associated maritime rights. The real issue would appear to lie in the permissibility of fishing – including potentially acquired customary rights to do so – in the context of EU Common Fisheries Policy rules. In this short post I want to clarify the legal position on sovereignty and associated maritime rights, before turning to the arguably more complicated issue of fishing rights specifically. Before doing so, for those not already familiar, a brief introduction to Rockall is necessary. Read the rest of this entry…

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Brexit, the Northern Irish Backstop, and Fundamental Change of Circumstances

Published on March 18, 2019        Author: 

If, dear readers, you have any doubts that the parliamentary politics of Brexit have emerged from the fever dream of some demented game theorist, I would just ask you to take a very quick look at the events of last week. In their second meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, British MPs voted it down by 391 votes to 242, a majority of 149. This was an improvement of sorts on the first meaningful vote, which May lost by a majority of 230. MPs also voted to reject a no-deal Brexit and to instruct the government to ask the other EU states for an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal period. At the same time, by a majority of only 2 votes they defeated the Benn amendment, which would have allowed Parliament to express its preferences as to the outcome of the Brexit process in a series of indicative votes, and thus overcome the current impasse.

This week Theresa May seems poised to take her deal to the Commons for a third meaningful vote, most likely on Tuesday or Wednesday, before the EU Council meets on Thursday. She has worked furiously over the past few days to lobby the Northern Irish DUP and the hard-core Brexiteers within her party to vote for her deal, or risk either a very long extension to Article 50 or the UK remaining in the EU after all. This fear is of course the main incentive to bring the various pro-Brexit factions within Parliament and the Tory party to support May’s deal, and it is growing in power as the Article 50 deadline approaches. But because some of these factions have effectively painted themselves into a corner over the supposed downsides of May’s deal, they need something more than fear itself to justify a change of mind to their electorate. They need, well, a fundamental change of circumstances, like re-revised legal advice from the UK Attorney-General, Geoffrey Cox QC. And they may well eventually find that in the customary rule on fundamental change of circumstances, rebus sic stantibus, codified in Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Now, if even after two full years into this whole MCFoHP someone told me that Brexit could ultimately depend on Art. 62 VCLT, I would have been perplexed, to put it politely. This is, for all its Roman pedigree, a rule that has never successfully been applied in real life, I would have said. Its requirements are almost impossibly strict. How could something as important as Brexit depend on an international law doctrine of such relative obscurity that even international law textbooks standing at more than a thousand pages devote it less than two? To paraphrase the late Ian Brownlie’s pithy assessment of jus cogens, the rule on fundamental change of circumstance is a car that has never left the garage.

But – but – over the past week the garage doors have creaked open, with a whiff of something tart and pungent. The stillness of things has become disturbed.

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Brexit Means Brexit: Does It so When It Comes to EU Citizenship?

Published on March 15, 2019        Author: 

Following a dramatic referendum, the United Kingdom triggered Art. 50 of the TEU in March 2017 officially commencing its withdrawal from the EU. At first glance, one of the many consequences of the move is the loss of EU citizenship for all British citizens as they will no longer be ‘holding the nationality of a Member State’ (TFEU, Art. 20(1)). This means losing all the perks that go with an EU passport, among them the freedom of movement, residence, and employment across the Union (id., Art. 20(2)).

A broader question of fairness and justice arises when ca. sixteen million people who have not voted in favour of leaving the bloc and have not committed any fraud or deceit are going to be stripped of their EU citizenship, and all of the privileges associated therewith. Not surprisingly, there have been some speculations on whether (and how) EU citizenship can be preserved by the Brits.

EU Citizenship

In its contemporary form, EU citizenship was established by the TEU back in 1992 providing that an EU citizen is ‘[e]very national of a Member State’ (Art. 9). The drafters of the Treaties could easily avoid using the term ‘citizenship’ and simply assign all the rights to nationals of the Member States but did not do that (William Thomas Worster, Brexit and the International Law Prohibitions on the Loss of EU Citizenship 15 International Organizations Law Review 341, 348 (2018)). However, the true roots of EU citizenship can be found in the Treaty of Paris signed in 1951. The Treaty virtually denounced any restrictions in the employment of professionals ‘in the coal and steel industries’ (Art. 69). Read the rest of this entry…

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Negotiating Brexit in the Shadow of the Law of Treaties

Published on March 12, 2019        Author: 

It is an extraordinary day in British politics today, with the Prime Minister’s ‘enhanced’ Brexit deal to be voted on in Parliament later this evening. The outcome of today’s vote, and the votes that may follow later in the week, is of course anyone’s guess (although the WA will likely be voted down). I have now read through the Attorney-General’s new legal advice on the revised deal and have been following the debate in the House of Commons, and was struck by how remarkably the various issues being debated turned around the customary law of treaties, which operates by default, in the background, unless the UK and EU agree differently. Here are just some – readers are of course invited to discuss any relevant matter in the comments:

(1) What is the legal nature of the Joint Instrument relating to the Withdrawal Agreement, and what are its legal effects? Is it an agreement in the sense of Art. 31(2)(a) VCLT, which defines the ‘context’ of the treaty? Is it something even stronger, an ‘authentic interpretation’ of the WA? Is is also a separate treaty, even though it is not called such, because it is a written agreement between a state and an IO governed by international law, which sets out further obligations that were not in the WA? (The latter is the position of the UK government).

(2) Note in that regard the superb example of constructive ambiguity of the final paragraph of the Instrument, which allows the EU to say, on one hand, that the WA was not reopened or changed as the Instrument simply interprets the WA, and for the UK to argue that meaningful legally binding changes were made to the deal:

Note that this instrument provides, in the sense of Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a clear and unambiguous statement by both parties to the Withdrawal Agreement of what they agreed in a number of provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. Therefore, it constitutes a document of reference that will have to be made use of if any issue arises in the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. To this effect, it has legal force and a binding character.

(3) Similarly, what is the legal nature and effects of the UK’s Unilateral Declaration? Is it simply an interpretative declaration by the UK, which is of itself incapable of having any direct legal effects, being simply a statement of the UK’s position? Or is it something more, especially because the EU has not objected to it?

(4) There seems to be consensus that the customary rules on denunciation and suspension of treaty obligations have been displaced by the express dedicated provisions of the WA. This seems to apply also for termination or suspension due to material breach. The WA does not allow the UK to exit the backstop unilaterally; it can only suspend obligations arising from it if the EU is shown to be acting in bad faith and this is determined by the arbitral tribunal established by the WA.

(5) However, the UK’s position is that it CAN unilaterally terminate the WA or the backstop Protocol in case of fundamental change of circumstance/rebus sic stantibus. The Attorney General was explicit on the point repeatedly in the Commons. Never has more been at stake, it seems, regarding the interpretation of the rule in Art. 62 VCLT.

We’ll obviously have to wait and see how this will play out, but again it is clear that Brexit is being shaped critically by the background operation of the law of treaties. It is also remarkable how much importance has been given to questions of form, i.e. how crucial it is for many MPs whether a particular obligation is political or legally binding. Readers may also be interested in the Attorney’s new advice; the Attorney’s prior advice on the WA; an opinion by David Anderson QC, Jason Coppel QC, and Sean Aughey; and an opinion by Philippe Sands QC and David Edward QC.

 

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A Frontstop Approach to the Backstop Conundrum

Published on January 29, 2019        Author: 

The EU, understandably, wants to preserve the integrity of its customs and regulatory territory. The UK and Ireland wish to preserve, post Brexit, the integrity of the Good Friday agreement which implies an open border between the Union and a non-Member State. Herein is born the famous “Backstop” conundrum – the solution ‘de jour’ being the UK remaining in a Customs Union with the EU. 

Like many Europeans I find the thought of the Union without the UK distressing and a no-deal exit even more so. But one should not therefore obfuscate the terms of the ongoing debate. 

A Customs Union, we all know, comes with a price – notably the inability of the UK to conclude independent trade agreements – a price not all Brexiteers are willing to accept, at least not as a permanent arrangement or at least not as something forced upon them deus ex machina. It is also unlikely that the Union would allow the UK to have more than a consultative voice in future EU trade agreements which, of course, would bind such a Customs Union. Another unpalatable dish.  

But all this, we are told, will disappear when Final Status negotiations between the EU and the UK will conclude.  

The notion that final status talks will bring an end to a Customs Union Backstop  obscures one very uncomfortable catch 22 truth. The need for the Backstop will disappear if, and only if, the final status talks result in the UK remaining, one way or another, de jure or de facto,  in an EU Customs Union applying the Common External Tariff!

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A Second Brexit Referendum – What Makes You Think They Will Have You Back?

Published on November 26, 2018        Author: 

The call for a second Brexit Referendum is still alive, some say more than ever. It is probably unlikely and, even if it were to take place, there is no certainty that the Remain camp would win. But it is somehow based on the assumption that if such a referendum were held, and the Remainers would win (probably a narrow victory) and that if, as a result, the UK Parliament were to change its mind and elect to remain, that on the basis of this unilateral decision of the UK the status quo ante would be restored and British membership of the Union would continue unabated.

This is very unlikely to be the case.

First there is the legal issue regarding such a unilateral withdrawal of the Article 50 notice.

As is well known, a Preliminary Reference from Scotland will be decided this month in an expedited procedure and before a plenary forum of the ECJ, trying to clarify the legal parameters of a British change of mind whether through a referendum or otherwise.

The Reference definitely has some elements of an Affaire Bidon but I predict the ECJ will not opt for inadmissibility in this case. On the merits it is likely that it will  reject the two ‘bookend’ arguments and instead go for the centre. It is most unlikely that it will hold that once Article 50 notice has been served the process is irreversible and that the only way back, even before the deadline for formal exit arrived, is an Article 49 admission procedure. It is, in my view, equally or even more unlikely that it would hold that the UK could unilaterally withdraw its notice and that, with no more, its Membership would continue unabated. The UK drives everyone crazy for close to three years and then, oops, just as the Clock Strikes One, the Mouse is to run down as if nothing happened?

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Brexit and the Transatlantic Trouble of Counting Treaties

Published on December 6, 2017        Author: 

As pointed out by the Financial Times (FT), the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will require the renegotiation of more than 700 international agreements from which the UK currently benefits by virtue of its EU membership. Given the political and economic importance of transatlantic relations for both the UK and EU, the United States is arguably a good place to start when it comes to gaining a deeper understanding of the challenge at hand. As this post argues, before reaching the substantive questions surrounding the new agreements, even determining the number of treaties that may need to be replaced with new U.S.-UK ones is not a straightforward task.

In an address of November 28, 2017, Secretary of State Tillerson urged both sides to move the withdrawal process “forward swiftly and without unnecessary acrimony” and offered “an impartial hand of friendship to both parties”. Meanwhile, the Brexit negotiations are nearing a crucial point in mid-December, when it will be determined whether “sufficient progress” has been achieved for the two sides to start looking to the future—with each other and with strategic partners such as the U.S.

In determining the UK’s post-Brexit “special relationship” with the U.S., some preliminary discussions are already underway. However, the UK will be free to conduct fully-fledged negotiations only once it ceases to be an EU member. In anticipation of the many legal and political questions that these negotiations will raise, a preliminary—seemingly simple—matter would be to establish what the actual treaty relations between the U.S. and EU are. Three comprehensive and authoritative sources can be drawn upon to this end: The U.S. State Department’s Treaties in Force 2017, the EU’s Treaty Office Database, and the FT’s Brexit treaty renegotiation checklist. The only problem is, they do not match up. According to the State Department, there are 31 bilateral treaties in force between the EU and U.S., according to the EU’s Treaty Office, the number is 52, and according to the FT, it is 37. Hence, establishing the extent and content of legal relations affected by Brexit amounts in the first place to an empirical challenge.

In an effort to better understand this challenge, this post will first explain the reasons for (most of) these discrepancies, and subsequently offer its own assessment of the number of treaties. Before doing so, it should be stressed that this analysis focusses on bilateral international agreements only, i.e., agreements between the U.S. and the EU, either with or without the EU’s Members States alongside it. Agreements including additional parties would be categorized as multilateral agreements, of which there is also a significant number involving both the EU and U.S. and which raise additional difficulties, as illustrated recently in the dispute over the post-Brexit splitting of tariff rate quotas at the WTO. Moreover, the analysis focusses on treaties in force, thus excluding treaties pending ratification or those which are being provisionally applied (such as the 2007 Open Skies Agreement). As a final caveat, this post does not delve into any of the many administrative agreements concluded directly between U.S. and EU agencies (see for a useful overview the table compiled by Peter Chase in Daniel Hamilton and Jacques Pelkmans (eds.), Rule-Makers or Rule-Takers: Exploring the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (2015), pp. 55-60). What this post seeks to show is that even a single bilateral treaty relationship is challenging enough to grasp.

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