My Lords, on the “Today” programme on Radio 4 on Friday the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, asserted that “the EU cannot and will not renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol”. In fact the EU can, should and must renegotiate it. It can renegotiate because any treaty can be renegotiated, and many are. It should renegotiate it because the sole justification of the protocol was to uphold the Belfast agreement, and the first article is that nothing in the protocol shall prejudice the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. As the former Solicitor-General, Sir Robert Buckland, said yesterday,
“that means … that the … agreement takes primacy over the protocol”,—[Official Report, Commons, 17/5/22; col. 554.] so the British Government, as co-guarantor of the agreement, have a duty to renegotiate the elements of it which are undermining the Belfast agreement.
The main point I want to make in the five minutes that I have is that the EU must renegotiate the protocol. It must because, legally, the protocol is not a permanent arrangement: it must eventually be replaced or it will lapse. That is not my opinion or the Government’s opinion; it was the whole basis on which the EU negotiated the withdrawal agreement: that, under Article 50, it did not have the competence to negotiate a permanent trade and co-operation agreement with a member state. Article 50 allowed it only to negotiate the divorce terms and temporary or transitional arrangements to smooth the departure of a member state. It said that a permanent trade relationship could be agreed under Article 218 only with a non-member state. That is why the EU refused Mrs May’s request to negotiate the trade and co-operation agreement in parallel with the withdrawal agreement. The UK had first to leave the EU, agree to sign the withdrawal agreement and become a non-member state before negotiations on a permanent trade and co-operation agreement could even begin, so how come there was a trade and co-operation agreement covering Northern Ireland?
The Northern Ireland protocol could be agreed under Article 50 only because and so long as it was temporary; it was needed to smooth departure, not least because there was no certainty that a permanent trade and co-operation agreement between the UK and the EU would be in place by the time we left the EU. That should not be news to us because the former Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox explained to the House of Commons that,
“article 50 of the Treaty on European Union does not provide a legal basis in Union law for permanent future arrangements with non-member states”. —[Official Report, Commons, 3/12/18; col. 547.]
He went on to say that, if traders in future felt disadvantaged by the protocol, they should
“beat a path to the door of the Commission and the Court … to say, ‘Didn’t you say that article 50 is not a sound legal foundation for this arrangement?’ And I tell you frankly, Mr Speaker, they are likely to win.”—[Official Report, Commons, 3/12/18; col. 555.]
The original protocol itself spelled out that
“the Withdrawal Agreement, which is based on Article 50 TEU, does not aim at establishing a permanent future relationship between the Union and the United Kingdom”.
That is equally true of the protocol in the final withdrawal Act, since it, too, is based on Article 50. Paragraph 8 of Article 13 of the protocol itself specifically envisages the replacement of all or parts of the protocol by a subsequent agreement. Nor does the provision in the final protocol for approval or rejection by the Northern Ireland Assembly alter the issue; even if the Assembly were to endorse the arrangements set down under the protocol, which was an agreement between the EU and the whole UK, not just Northern Ireland itself, that would not change its transitional nature.
The temporary nature of the protocol is a matter of EU law. I am puzzled that its author never remembers that nowadays. He and all the other spokesmen of the European Union in this House suffer from a selective memory and treat this protocol as if it is to be permanent and cannot and should not be changed, even if undermines the Belfast agreement, which was the very purpose of that protocol. Of course, I give way to the noble Lord, my former good friend.
Lord Kerr: It is just possible that the noble Lord is confusing two versions of the protocol —the one negotiated by the previous Prime Minister and the one negotiated by the present Prime Minister. The previous Prime Minister’s protocol was, on the face of it, clear, straightforward and temporary. The present Prime Minister’s protocol is permanent.
The transitory nature of both protocols arises from Article 50, which the noble Lord himself wrote—and if he wishes to repudiate that and say that Article 50 does not mean what the European Union says that it means, that would be an interesting thing to do. If the European Union were now to change its view and say, “We were conning you and having you on when we said that we couldn’t negotiate a permanent arrangement under Article 50”, it would show that the original treaty was based on negotiations in bad faith, and that would give us a basis to seek renegotiation.
More positively, we should look to the EU to negotiate and renegotiate with the same spirit and the same objective that it did the original protocol: to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its parts. I welcome the fact that the British Government are moving forward on that basis.