Could the noble Lord clarify whether it would be possible for the European Council to set the condition that the British Parliament, or the British Government, agree to hold a referendum? I agree that it would not be possible for it to set conditions that limited our powers within the period of membership, but surely it is possible for it to do that.
Lord Kerr of Kinlochard:
That is absolutely out of the question. The treaty language, including in Article 50, is absolutely clear that it is for the member state to proceed under its own constitutional procedures. That is specifically spelled out, including in Article 50. The idea that the European Union would interfere in our domestic decision-taking constitutional arrangements is out of the question.
My Lords, I am not a lawyer but, from what I have heard, I believe that this amendment carries considerable weight. I am not persuaded, even by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that conditions could not in practice be imposed. We know that that has been talked about frequently by the leaders of our partners in Europe and by European Commissioners. Are noble Lords able to tell me what would happen if, when we asked for an extension, those in the EU asked what it was for? They have repeatedly asked us that. What if we said that we did not know, and they then told us that we could therefore not have an extension? Or what if we told them that we were going to have a referendum, and they then said that we could have an extension? Is the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, saying that that process of discussion and dialogue could not happen? It seems to be quite compatible with paragraph 3 of Article 50, which says:
“The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the … agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned”— implying that there may be a range of things to be agreed—
“unanimously decides to extend this period”.
What I originally wanted to ask was this. To my mind, this amendment raises a rather more fundamental question about Clause 3(1), which begins:
“If the European Council decides to agree an extension”.
It can decide only by unanimity. Once it has decided, its decision is European law and binding upon us. There is therefore no possibility of coming back to the House of Commons and overruling that decision. We were told that in March, when the Prime Minister went to the Council and agreed an extension. When she came back, people in the House of Commons wanted to have a vote on it and were told, “You can have a vote if you like but it is law anyway”. The assurances we have been given that Parliament itself could overrule an agreement, or not agree to a decision made by the Council, if we did not like its length or any terms that might be implicit in it are, as far as I understand it, simply not true. Now, I am not a lawyer —those were my opening remarks—but if a lawyer is prepared to stand up and say that a decision of the European Council is not binding in European law, and therefore not binding on us before we have left, my objection falls. If not, we have found a very major weakness in the Bill.
My Lords, it would appear that everybody in the House is toing and froing to Brussels. I have to make it clear that the last time I was in Brussels, when I was still a Northern Ireland Minister, on the day that the beef ban was lifted I was serving Northern Ireland beef to trade delegations to rebuild that industry. That was my last time in Brussels, so I am not party to any of the discussions.
The point about the amendment, which has been sufficiently answered in a much better way than I could do, is that it is built on an assumption about the unconditional extension of time. It would actually confuse Clause 3. Clause 3 is precise in some ways but subsection (4) gives it flexibility. It is interesting that an amendment has been tabled by the same group of people to knock out subsection (4), because that provision gives the Prime Minister the capacity to agree a different date. That flexibility and precision are built in to achieve the objectives because, at the moment, we are in an unknown area. To be honest, to add the amendment would be confusing.
I am not going to get into disputes with lawyers and drafters of legislation, but the fact of the matter is that I would take the explanation of the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Cormack, over and above legalistic nitpicking of what is quite a precise clause. In fact, when you look at the Bill, this is probably its best drafted clause.
Did the noble Lord notice that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, did not come back to deny that the sort of discussions I suggested could take place, which would implicitly involve conditions?
I did note it but I have no comment to make on it.
Lord Kerr of Kinlochard:
I do not think it is for me to comment on discussions in the European Council. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, I do not know what happened when President Macron argued for a shorter extension at the last European Council. It is perfectly possible that dialogue with the British Prime Minister might take place, but what is not possible is that there could be a conditional extension. The extension would be unconditional because that is what the treaty says, or rather the treaty contains no powers for imposing a conditional extension.