The speech made by Jeremy Wright, the Conservative MP for Kenilworth and Southam, in the House of Commons on 14 September 2020.
The majority of the Bill is sensible and necessary for an effective United Kingdom single market when we are no longer subject to EU rules. My issue, as for others, is clauses 42, 43 and 45, which take what was agreed less than a year ago about the primacy of the withdrawal agreement over domestic law and reverse it. They are not a clarification but a contradiction of that agreement, and the Government are very clear about this: doing that would be breaking international law.
I agree that it is possible to break international law without automatically breaking domestic law. It is also true that Parliament is sovereign, and it can choose to break international law if it wants to, but the fact that an international law breach is not a domestic law breach and is not unconstitutional does not make it a good idea. The blatant and unilateral breach of a treaty commitment could be justified only in the most extreme and persuasive circumstances. The Government say that such circumstances are those in which no ongoing trade arrangement is made with the EU and where the Joint Committee established under the withdrawal agreement to resolve problems of interpretation is unable to do so, leaving the UK in an impossible position.
Sir John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
That is the nub of the argument, is it not? These are exceptional circumstances. We are about to negotiate by far the most important agreement that this country has reached for the last 40 years. In those highly dynamic circumstances it is right that this Parliament should give the Government sufficient flexibility to get the best possible deal for Britain. That is what this is about, and that is why we should support the Bill.
If my right hon. Friend will allow me, I will address exactly that point and what the Government could be doing instead of what they are proposing to do. Let me say first that the possibility of reaching no trade agreement and of deadlock in the Joint Committee was foreseeable yet when the withdrawal agreement was signed, and again when it was legislated for, the Government did not say that the risk of the outcomes they rely upon now undermined the deal on offer; they said then and they say now that this was a good deal. So what has changed?
That leads to the argument to which my right hon. Friend refers: that, unexpectedly, the European Union is now adopting an interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol so outrageous and so far from a rational reading of that protocol that we could not have seen it coming and we could not possibly accept it, leaving no option but to abrogate ourselves the relevant parts of the protocol. But the withdrawal agreement sets out a mechanism for resolving disputes about interpretation, involving binding independent arbitration and penalties including the suspension of obligations under the agreement. If the EU’s new approach is so far from what the agreement intended, why would the Government not succeed in using that mechanism?
Sir Bernard Jenkin
The answer is that any question in European law, under article 174 of the withdrawal agreement, has to be referred to the European Court of Justice, and the Court is acting not on behalf of the 28 as before, but on behalf of the 27. We know it is a political court.
My right hon. Friend might be right to be sceptical about the Court of Justice of the European Union, but the issue likely to arise here is not a question of European Union law; it is a question whether there is compliance with the withdrawal agreement signed by both sides. That does not necessarily raise a question of European law; nor, in my view, is it likely to. It raises a question of treaty law and whether or not this is being abided by in good faith.
I accept that the Government have a problem, but I cannot accept that the proposed solution is either necessary or right. International law matters. The rules that bind nations underpin what the United Kingdom says on the world stage on a variety of subjects, from the Skripal poisonings to the treatment of the Uyghur people to the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We speak often, and rightly so, of the rules-based international order as the foundation of freedom and justice in the world and of our security. The rules referred to are, of course, rules of international law. If we break them ourselves, we weaken our authority to make the arguments that the world’s most vulnerable need us to make. Nor is it in our long-term diplomatic or commercial interests to erode the reputation we have earned for the strength of our word and our respect for the rule of law—a reputation that, ironically, we will rely on more than ever when the Brexit process is complete.
I do not believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister or his Ministers wish to undermine that reputation, but I do believe that if Parliament were to give Ministers the powers they are asking for, and if they were to be exercised, we would all come to regret it. That is why I cannot vote for the clauses as they stand, or for a Bill that contains them.