Brexit – Squaring Circle and involving European Court of Justice
Clash of Philosophies
There is a potentially irreconcilable clash of constitutional philosophies between the UK and the EU which results in certain “no go” areas on the EU side for the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
Perspective of the EU27
The EU27’s approach is driven by the perception that the European Union is not merely representative of a negotiable bundle of international trade treaties but is a supranational entity based on and subject to a constitution created by the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). From the perspective of the EU and the EU27 , the constitution of the EU goes well beyond international treaties. The Treaties establish a Union which is based on principles similar to those in Federal States.
Any of the member states of the EU (including the UK) accordingly is, from the perspective of the EU, not only a counterparty to an international treaty but an integral part of an autonomous Union. The driving principle of the European Union – which was correctly identified and repeated by Leave campaigners – is the supremacy of the EU’s legal order over the legal order of its member states, including the supremacy of the EU’s legal order over the constitutions of the member states.
One of the most important principles of the EU is laid down in Article 3 (2) TEU. This provides that the EU is an area within which its citizens are free and can freely move. This is a general principle which is not restricted to trade but applies in all areas of life. In addition to such general principle Article 3 (3) TEU states that, inter alia, one of the consequences of this area of freedom and free movement is the internal market.
That is the context of the European Union placing the future rights of EU citizens in the UK at the forefront of any of the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
Since the EU is bound to such constitutional order, any agreement with the UK pursuant to Article 50 TEU needs, from the perspective of the EU, to comply with such constitutional principles. “Constitutionality” is a major issue for the continental European member states since governments and politicians on the continent are used to be bound by constitutions which cannot be overridden by domestic governments or parliaments by simple act of parliament or government. Constitutions can only be amended or overridden if a qualified majority in Parliament and, in some member states, a referendum so approves. In some member states, such as Germany, there are even some constitutional principles which cannotbe changed by Parliament at all.
Perspective of the UK
The UK approach is driven by its perspective that the EU is simply the creation of a bundle of international treaties which establish a common market in which various different principles of free trade and free movement apply, and the contents of which can be freely negotiated between the various parties to such international treaties. Accordingly the UK takes the point of view that the agreements to be entered into pursuant to Article 50 TEU upon Brexit can be freely negotiated and that such negotiations are not subject to or restricted by overriding constitutional principles which are binding on the EU during such exit negotiations.
How to reconcile the differing points of view and how to involve the European Court of Justice
The two above described perspectives of the UK and the EU would appear to be legally irreconcilable, but there is a potential avenue out of such dead-lock by making use of:
(a) the fact that Article 50 (3) TEU does not conclusively state that the UK ceases to be a member state of the EU two years after the Article 50 Notice has been given, but in principle refers to the date on which the relevant withdrawal agreement becomes effective, which effective date can either fall on a date occurring after the two years or on a date occurring prior to the two years.
Accordingly, a simple withdrawal agreement could provide that Brexit becomes effective only once certain specified additional agreements have been finalized and entered into.
(b) the Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council and/or any member state (including the UK) being entitled to request from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) pursuant to Article 218 (11) TFEU legal opinions on any draft agreement – like the agreements between the UK and the EU on their future relationships – to be entered into with a third country (which the UK would be once the withdrawal agreement becomes effective) in order to avoid and/or mitigate concerns relating to the constitutionality of the future relationship agreement with the UK.
It is likely that the EU27 will at some stage call upon the European Court of Justice to opine on the constitutionality of the future relationship agreement(s) with the UK because of the fundamental nature of the agreement(s).
Samples of constitutionally important legal opinions rendered by the European Court of Justice in relation to Agreements which the EU had entered into in the past under Article 218 (11) TFEU (and its predecessors) include, for example:
– ECJ opinions 1/91 and 1/92 on the European Economic Area Agreement and the system of judicial review thereunder,
– ECJ opinion 1/94 relating to the EU agreeing to accede to WTO, GATS and TRIPs
– ECJ opinion 2/13 relating to the accession of the EU to the European Convention on Human Rights
– ECJ opinion 2/15 relating to the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore.
In relation to the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore the ECJ held on 16 May 2017 that such Free Trade Agreement is, because of its far reaching comprehensive content, a so-called “mixed-agreement” and therefore requires the consent of all 28 Member States of the European Union. Depending on the contents of the future relationship agreement between the UK and the EU, such agreement will also need to be ratified by the Parliaments of the EU27 Member States.
Agreements to be negotiated between the UK and the EU
The minimum number of agreements to be negotiated in the context of the UK leaving the EU pursuant to Article 50 is two:
(i) the withdrawal agreement on the details of the withdrawal “taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union” and
(ii) an agreement on the details of the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
Even though the minimum number of agreements to be entered into is two, it is likely that there will be more than two agreements since there are areas which need to be dealt with instantaneously (like aviation between the UK and EU27 and a potential accession of the UK to the ECAA Agreement in order to enable the flow of air traffic between the UK and the EU to continue as normal) irrespective of whether other areas may be dealt with at a later stage.
Whereas the withdrawal agreement can be adopted by the EU pursuant to a qualified majority decision pursuant to Article 50 TEU, any agreement on the details of the future relationship will require the “normal” majority contemplated in the TEU and TFEU for the relevant matters concerned, because Article 50 does not apply to such agreements on the details of the future relationship.
From the EU27 perspective, the principal items of the withdrawal agreement are those set out in the Brexit Negotiation Guidelines adopted by the European Council on 29 April 2017, the European Parliament on 5 April 2017 and the Non-Paper of the European Commission of 20 April 2017 and the Commission Recommendation for a Council Decision of 3 May 2017.
Withdrawal Agreement and the date at which it comes into force
The EU and the UK could agree that the withdrawal agreement is ratified in accordance with Article 50 TEU before the lapse of the two-year period but provides that it comes into force only after the agreement on principles for the future relationship has been (i) agreed on working level; (ii) submitted to and reviewed by the European Court of Justice pursuant to Article 218 (11) TFEU, and (iii) been ratified by the UK and the EU – or after the ratification process has been declared by the UK to be defunct.
That would mean that the UK would not cease to be a member state of the EU until there is an agreement on the principles for the future relationship without having to achieve this within the tight two years period.
The UK would also continue to enjoy all rights as a member state under existing international trade and other agreements entered into by the EU with countries around the world, like free trade agreements, air transportation agreements etc. until the ECJ has determined that the principles agreed between the UK and the EU in the agreement on principles for the future relationship are compliant with TEU and TFEU. Once this has been determined, the details of the future relationship could be negotiated in detail between the UK and the EU.
If the UK ceased to be a Member State on 30 March 2019 and “only” some transitory period or implementation period thereafter was agreed on during which certain specified EU rules continue to apply, this would not prevent the UK from losing its rights under existing International Agreements which had been entered into by the EU.
There is clarity in the approach of the EU27. The approach that the UK will take should become clearer after the General Election on 8 June, and later in the year as the UK government begins to identify its Brexit strategy in more detail, and identifies the trade offs it is prepared to make. The historical and current political climate, as well as the sheer complexity of Brexit, is such that the UK cannot necessarily be expected the trade offs which history will regard as the “right” ones.