Moderator: Oonagh Fitzgerald, Director of the International Research Program, Centre for International Governance Innovation, Ontario, Canada
Speakers: Robert Howse, New York University School of Law; Jessica Simonoff, U. S. Department of State; Sir Michael Wood, 20 Essex Street Chambers; Joao Rodrigues, European Parliament Liaison Office
The fact that the very day of this panel at ASIL was originally “Brexit Day,” that is, the day the UK Parliament was to exit the European Union, says a great deal about Brexit and the crisis at the nexus of international and constitutional law that it represents. However, it may happen April 12 if she cannot get her plan passed on this day, which would have given the UK until May 22nd instead. (Or, as of this writing, at the end of this year if Labour cannot join up? Who knows…). This late-breaking panel was scheduled to end at 10:30 a.m., when the straw polling in Parliament on Prime Minister Teresa May’s proposal was to begin. And so it goes. (We learned soon after the panel session broke up that the proposal failed).
After briefly reviewing the timeline from the referendum in 2016, moderator Oohagh Fitzgerald provided a summary of the U.K. Supreme Court Decision of R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union [2017 UKSC 5] (January 24, 2017). This is notable since the ruling of the court established that the UK executive could not just notify the European Council of its intention to withdraw from the EU; as with other UK treaties, an Act of Parliament would be required to permit that communication. (There is now in fact a European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 as of Royal Assent dated March 16, 2017). With at least this basic context in place, and some reference to the role of House of Commons speaker Bercow in requiring substantial changes before another vote on the same matter could take place, the Moderator posed a series of questions to the panel.
- What is the state of international law in the UK in light of BREXIT? Does it demonstrate that international law is working as it should?
Panelists articulated several perspectives on this excellent question and seemed to cover the range from internationalist to newer reassertions of sovereignty. For example, Sir Michael Wood, who participated in negotiation of the UK treaty of access to the EU in his time as an EU-focused lawyer, stated that EU law is not really autonomous. It is embedded in treaties and so it is largely part of public international law. The issue of Northern Ireland, and the UK ideally remaining in some sort of customs union to avoid a hard border, may become one of rules of interpretation. There is disagreement between the UK and the EU on whether the art. 50 withdrawal mechanism operates to contract the UK out of even customary international law rules. While Sir Michael pointed out that some MPs think “fundamental” and “unforeseen” changes in circumstances are manifested in the backstop situation, and Brexiteers (pro-Brexit MPs and ministers) think this might permit departure from the Brexit agreement (and its backstop under art. 62 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties), he is not sure that this would be so. (Brexiteers want to prevent an eternal tie to the customs union). Many are skeptical that evidence of concern over an issue such as that, expressed in advance, could ever allow that issue to be called “unforeseen.” This panelist shared that skepticism, as he is more of an internationalist and former lawyer working with the UN International Law Commission and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
A different view was taken by the panelist from the current US State Department. Jessica Simonoff viewed Brexit as an outsider and saw it as not about development of supranational governments but rather as showing the ongoing significance of national identity. The rules are developed by consent, as underscored by the ability to depart from a treaty. International law is alive and well because even after the UK delegated some of its international negotiating authority to the EU, it now can re-familiarize itself with some international law rules.
Professor Howse of NYU Law then contributed insights from international economic law as he pointed out that the UK would still be under the multilateral rules of the WTO. The logistics of new trade agreements and the hard border are not like the arrangements around which supply chains are organized. Pro-Brexit forces seem to him not to understand how new globalized trade actually works now, and a hard Brexit would create initial chaos with serious shortages of goods, at least temporarily. He also commented on the politics of Brexit, which he attributed in part not to a return to lost sovereignty, but to the work of elites using populism for political career advancement.
Panelist Rodrigues quipped that he “owns” his hat as EU bureaucrat. However, he prefers the term civil servant, a profession her noted ironically was established by the British. The EU is an international organization, but one created by a body of laws that has a constitutional nature. He sees Brexit not really a legal question, because it is allowed under the treaty in the procedure outlined by the UK case. Moreover, a case went to the European Court of Justice on the issue of unilateral withdrawal from the Brexit process, and it was ruled permissible if done democratically. So the legal part is all sorted. But he asked the political question of how does a member state get itself to a decision to leave? What is disturbing is that here we are on Brexit Day and there is no clear manifestation of British will. International law is well; political process in Britain is not.
- May cannot use crown prerogative per the Miller case, in this instance of a treaty, but now can she not move ahead with a statute in place?
Sir Michael Wood pointed out that even with some of the specific legal hurdles surmounted, the situation carries huge implications for UK constitutional law and there should never have been a referendum. While the rule of law and the idea that a minister cannot put same issue to vote twice in same Parliament is the same rule that in UN from parliamentary procedure. Treaties are executive and Parliament is not usually part of negotiations. In this case it has led to big problems.
Ms. Simonoff and Professor Howse, sharing a US perspective, observed that whether the UK is able to pull out of treaty has been moved to Parliament as a matter of constitutional law. Simonoff then compared the process to NAFTA withdrawal and Congressional involvement in those types of agreements. Howse noted and agreed that NAFTA would need some Congressional action for withdrawal. For WTO withdrawal, he speculated, were it to be contemplated, it would have to be based on resolutions of Congress, because the provision for review works through a Congressional process.
Rodrigues noted that there the Task Force on Article 50 Negotiations website was quite transparent, and indicated publicly what they would or would not accept. The EU 27 were united in how to deal with situation. Unlike Professor Howse, however, he thought populism played a crucial role.
- Is there a new bilateralism? Will getting out of massive relationship make the UK able to enter into such new agreements? Moderator Fitzgerald noted that European Council President Tusk thought bridging gap between any popular vote and orderly obligations needs to be worked out ahead and we have not seen that here in concrete plans for a new arrangement.
While Sir Michael Wood observed that the EU is not really multilateralism of the usual kind, Jessica Simonoff of US State thought that while bilateralism may simplify a discussion, a treaty negotiation is never really bilateral, as there are other voices in the room. Actions in the UK will always affect the EU. Contracts in many areas will be affected in the realm of private parties (for example, phone roaming fees now in EU after Brexit).
Professor Howse noted that ironically the less-discussed fall-back rules for the UK is a much bigger WTO multilateralism. The EU has now proven that it is a community of choice and right to depart is a real right. Euro-skeptics can now be shown that this is not like the old Soviet Union (to exaggerate) and that the EU made a good faith response. In his role as the EU civil servant on the panel, Mr. Rodrigues agreed that the EU will have to be flexible and negotiate a new trade agreement with the UK itself, so that is certainly bilateral.
- Q and A from the attendees consisted of three main questions:
- Will there be a way to adjudicate new disputes if there is a hard Brexit?
- Will the Good Friday Agreement and human rights in general be respected through some inclusion of the EU treaties’ principles on fundamental freedoms, and equality before the law, as applied in Ireland/N Ireland?
- Can the panel address what can be fairly referred to as a dishonest referendum? It was a dishonest vote: had it been between Remain and a version of Brexit, Remain would have won. The referendum was not an exercise in democratic will because no specific version of withdrawal was proposed.
The panelists answered all three questions together. Sir Michael Wood does think that temporary fixes will be used in a hard Brexit regarding air travel etc. He mused that the UK is paying to leave, and what if they say won’t pay if EU does not approve withdrawal agreement? Ms. Simonoff agreed that now that more information available, a second referendum could be good idea and not anti-democratic. Professor Howse thought democracy was manifested in the first vote, but people are also free to change their minds. Joao Rodrigues stated that the EU just sees it as done deal. Some provisional measures were taken by Council and Parliament to address a no-deal Brexit, such as in areas of customs, pharmaceuticals, etc., about 18-20 special measures, in fact. He thinks financial obligations of the agreement will come into the negotiations for a new UK- EU trade agreement, and rights of citizens as between the two jurisdictions will also play a part. He bases this on the UK rebate on fees that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher negotiated in the 1980s as manifestation of UK exceptionalism; they got it in 1984, so perhaps now as well.
As the panel ended and everyone left ready to check phones for news of the impending vote, all panelists- and attendees, no doubt- seemed to agree that whatever else it may be, Brexit has been good for stimulating interest in international law, and very good for lawyers.
 Update and Brexit timeline summary from a research report posted at the official Parliament website: “In a referendum held on 23 June 2016, the majority of the UK electorate voted to leave the European Union.
On 29 March 2017, in writing to European Council President Donald Tusk, the Prime Minister formally triggered Article 50 and began the two-year countdown to the UK formally leaving the EU (commonly known as ‘Brexit’).
The UK has long been expected to leave the European Union at 11pm on 29 March 2019. However, following a House of Commons vote on 14 March 2019, the Government sought permission from the EU to extend Article 50 and agree a later Brexit date.
On 20 March 2019 the Prime Minister wrote to European Council President Donald Tusk, asking to extend Article 50 until 30 June 2019.
Following a European Council meeting the next day, EU27 leaders agreed to grant an extension comprising two possible dates: 22 May 2019, should the Withdrawal Agreement gain approval from MPs next week; or 12 April 2019, should the Withdrawal Agreement not be approved by the House of Commons.”