Those of us of a certain age will remember the ‘solemn and binding’ undertaking given by TUC leaders to Harold Wilson following the rejection of his proposals for industrial relations reform in 1969. This swiftly turned into the fictitious comic character, ‘Solomon Binding’? Is Solomon’s hand hovering over the three documents that emerged after the Prime Minister’s meeting in Strasbourg last night and which will be put before the House of Commons tonight.
First there is the INSTRUMENT RELATING TO THE AGREEMENT ON THE WITHDRAWAL OF THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND FROM THE EUROPEAN UNION AND THE EUROPEAN ATOMIC ENERGY COMMUNITY
The agreement refers to arbitration under the mechanisms already established in the Protocol in the event that a party acts with the objective of applying the Protocol indefinitely and that a ruling by the panel would be binding on both parties. It does not alter the text of the withdrawal agreement. There is no time limit on the backstop. There is no procedure for either the UK or the EU to terminate the backstop unilaterally.
The key parts of the agreement as regards the backstop are set out below.
A subsequent agreement replacing the customs and regulatory alignment in goods elements of the Protocol could stand alone or form part of a wider agreement or agreements on the future relationship, depending on the progress of the wider negotiations. Alternative arrangements, which supersede the Protocol in whole or in part, in accordance with Article 2 of the Protocol, are not required to replicate its provisions in any respect, provided that the underlying objectives continue to be met. In the event that the agreement needs to stand alone due to delays in progress on the wider negotiations, the parties will aim at establishing this agreement very rapidly after the end of the transition period in full respect of the parties’ respective legal orders.
The Union and the United Kingdom agree that once negotiations on alternative arrangements have been completed to the satisfaction of both parties, the outcome will be transposed into a subsequent agreement. The subsequent agreement transposing the alternative arrangements will be applied as soon as possible after its signature, if necessary and appropriate by means of provisional application, in line with the applicable legal frameworks and existing practice.
Compliance and unilateral suspension
The Union and the United Kingdom agree that it would be inconsistent with their obligations under Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement and Article 2(1) of the Protocol for either party to act with the objective of applying the Protocol indefinitely. Should the Union or the United Kingdom consider the other party was acting in this way after the Protocol became applicable, it could make use of the dispute settlement mechanism enshrined in Articles 167 to 181 of the Withdrawal Agreement.
If a dispute arises in relation to Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement and Article 2(1) of the Protocol, the Union and the United Kingdom will immediately enter into consultations in the Joint Committee. They will endeavour to resolve the dispute in a timely manner, with the aim of reaching a mutually agreed solution. With a view to facilitating such a solution, each party will provide a written reasoned justification of its respective position and will respond in writing to the other.
Under the dispute settlement mechanism, a ruling by the arbitration panel that a party acts with the objective of applying the Protocol indefinitely would be binding on the Union and the United Kingdom. Persistent failure by a party to comply with a ruling, and thus persistent failure by that party to return to compliance with its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement, may result in temporary remedies. Ultimately, the aggrieved party would have the right to enact a unilateral, proportionate suspension of its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement (other than Part Two), including the Protocol. Such a suspension may remain in place unless and until the offending party has taken the necessary measures to comply with the ruling of the arbitration panel.
Second, there is joint statement supplementing the Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK
The meat of the statement is in paragraph six which sets out
6 Fifth, given the Union’s and the United Kingdom’s firm commitment to work at speed on a subsequent agreement that establishes by December 31st, 2020 alternative arrangements such that the backstop solution in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland will not need to be applied, a specific negotiating track will be established at the outset and as part of the negotiations to lead the analysis and development of these alternative arrangements. This dedicated track will consider the use of all existing and emerging facilitative arrangements and technologies, with a view to assessing their potential to replace, in whole or in part, the backstop solution in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
That assessment will include an evaluation of their practicability and deliverability in the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. By virtue of being embedded in the overall negotiation structure, the negotiating track on alternative arrangements will be able to take account of progress made in the wider negotiations on the future relationship, in particular on goods regulations and customs.
In addition, and in support of their work on alternative arrangements, both the Union and the United Kingdom will consult with private sector experts, businesses, trade unions, the institutions established under the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, and appropriate involvement of parliaments. In the first instance, the progress concerning alternative arrangements will be assessed at the first high level conference envisaged by the Political Declaration. To ensure that the negotiations are concluded in good time, further progress will be reviewed at each subsequent high level conference.
Thirdly, there is the UK’s unilateral declaration concerning the Northern Ireland Protocol. The third paragraph deals with a situation where there is a breach by the EU of the parties’ obligation under Article 5 of the withdrawal agreement which states “The Union and the United Kingdom shall, in full mutual respect and good faith, assist each other in carrying out tasks which flow from this Agreement”.
“The United Kingdom wishes to record its understanding of the effect of this provision if, contrary to the intentions of the parties, it is not possible for them to conclude an agreement which supersedes the Protocol in whole or in part due to a breach of Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement by the Union. The United Kingdom would not consider its application to be temporary in these circumstances, as in its view the Protocol would then constitute a permanent relationship between the Union and the United Kingdom. Article 1(4) makes clear this is not the Parties’ intention. If under these circumstances it proves not to be possible to negotiate a subsequent agreement as envisaged in Article 2 of the Protocol, the United Kingdom records its understanding that nothing in the Withdrawal Agreement would prevent it from instigating measures that could ultimately lead to disapplication of obligations under the Protocol, in accordance with Part Six, Title III of the Withdrawal Agreement or Article 20 of the Protocol, and under the proviso that the UK will uphold its obligations under the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions and under all circumstances and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.”
The Attorney General is expected to produce his advice to the House of Commons on the legal effect of these three documents later this morning in advance of the vote scheduled for later today.