Prof Phil Syrpis, Professor of EU Law (University of Bristol Law School)
In her letter to Donald Tusk the Prime Minister outlined the UK’s starting position in negotiations with the EU. The EU Council of Ministers responded by producing draft negotiating guidelines (to be confirmed by the European Council at the end of April). These guidelines create the framework within which negotiations on withdrawal, and those on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, will occur. Meanwhile, a White Paper on the Great Repeal Bill was presented to Parliament, promising on the one hand to repeal the European Communities Act (ECA) and end the supremacy of EU law in the UK, and on the other to convert the acquis communautaire into UK law, so that ‘EU-derived rights’ (as we will need to get used to calling them) will, as far as possible, be unaffected.
The opening exchanges between the UK and EU have generated a lot of comment. Much of it has focused on the unlikely subject of Gibraltar (Michael Howard’s crass evocation of the Falklands conflict will have done nothing to lower simmering tensions). In relation to the White Paper, most attention has been devoted to the role of Parliament and the devolved assemblies. Rather less attention has been paid to many of the EU law aspects. In this short note, I focus on those. I first consider what new light has been shed on the way in which the Article 50 negotiations will proceed, drawing attention to the host of issues which remain unanswered. I then consider the EU law questions raised by the repeal of the ECA, and the conversion of the acquis into UK law. Michael Ford has already commented on this blog on the applicability of judgments of the European Court of Justice in the post-Brexit era; so there is no more on that subject here.
My overarching concern is that the Government, in particular in the White Paper, has failed to provide a clear sense of the size of the task which lies ahead. It is impossible to know whether this is because the Government itself does not appreciate the magnitude of the challenge, or because it is trying to conceal the difficulties. The Government has, for months, struggled to articulate just what Brexit might mean, and has made a series of disparate promises which a range of different constituencies have, if so minded, been able to rely on, or cling to. It will now start making hard choices. It has not prepared the ground well.
Theresa May’s letter set a conciliatory tone, using much more constructive rhetoric than hitherto. She emphasised her desire to build a ‘new deep and special partnership’ with the EU. She expressed the belief that ‘it is necessary to agree the terms of our future relationship alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU’. And she made it clear that the ‘no deal’ scenario is ‘not the outcome which either side should seek’. This is not the tone avid Brexiteers had been expecting.
The EU responded with a draft of the negotiating guidelines which are to ‘define the framework for negotiations under Article 50’ (though note that the European Council, a little ominously, reserves to itself the power to ‘update these guidelines in the course of the negotiations as necessary’). Article 50 does not afford a role to the withdrawing state in the drafting or scope of these guidelines; like them or not, the UK will have to abide by them. The Council repeated ‘its wish to have the UK as a close partner in the future’. But it is immediately clear that the relationship will be very different to the one we have all become used to. In the very first paragraph of the draft guidelines there are references to ‘the integrity of the Single Market’ and to the fact that there ‘can be no “cherry picking”’, and a clear statement that a non-member of the Union ‘cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member’. The guidelines go on to say that withdrawal negotiations ‘will be conducted as a single package’; ‘individual items cannot be settled separately’; and ‘there will be no separate negotiations between individual Member States and the United Kingdom’ on matters pertaining to its withdrawal.
The disagreement relating to the sequencing of the negotiations will be one to watch over the coming weeks and months. Article 50 provides some guidance here, with paragraph 2 providing that the withdrawal agreement with, in this instance, the UK, shall be negotiated and concluded ‘taking account of the framework of its future relationship with the Union’. On the basis of this wording, I have argued that the European Council should have agreed to commit to negotiations with the UK in relation not only about a narrow withdrawal agreement, but also about a broader agreement on the future relationship between the UK and the EU (so that the substantive reality of Brexit is known by the end of the two year negotiating period). The EU has, however, opted for a phased approach to the negotiations, seeking first to ensure that there is an orderly withdrawal. In the light of the wording of Article 50, perhaps reluctantly it has conceded that ‘an overall understanding on the framework for the future relationship could be identified during a second phase of the negotiations’, adding that the EU and its Member States ‘stand ready to engage in preliminary and preparatory discussions to this end in the context of negotiations under Article 50 TEU, as soon as sufficient progress has been made in the first phase’ (see para.4). In this instance it appears as though the UK has the law on its side; but there is little it can do to force the EU to broaden the scope of the negotiations before it is ready to do so. Continue reading