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House of Commons Hansard
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Northern Ireland Backstop: Conditional Interpretative Declaration
21 February 2019
Volume 654

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

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On 23 June 2016, the voters of the United Kingdom gave their instructions to the Government by a majority of over 1 million. Since then, it has been both the duty and the policy of the Government to implement the result of this people’s vote—a vote which the people were promised was a full and final decision, and which the overwhelming majority of Members of Parliament promised to enact. In passing the withdrawal agreement, the Government may find it valuable to use an instrument of international law called a conditional interpretative declaration to clarify our understanding of the temporary nature of the backstop.

I have been a passionate critic of our relationship with the European Union for decades. There has been a fundamental difference between what the EU has always been and what we were told it was. In the 1970s, we were told that it was a common market—a mere economic relationship. Of course, given our geographical proximity, a great deal of economic integration and co-ordination makes sense. We want to facilitate trade so that our workers and businesses can grow in prosperity together. But the EU was always a project for a political union that the people of this country never fully understood or assented to.

It has been clear to me, and to many, since the Maastricht treaty that the EU’s trajectory and the desires of the British people were moving in entirely different directions. I questioned Maastricht from inside the Government in 1993 and was sacked for doing so—a fate that I hope does not befall the present Minister—and I voted for Brexit in 2016, as did 62% of my constituents in Lincolnshire. I am sure that my bona fides as a Brexiteer are established.

The proposed agreement with the EU consists of four legal documents. I want to use this Adjournment debate—a quiet moment for reflection away from the political hurly-burly—to go into this matter in some legal detail. The main agreement deals with citizens’ rights, companies being able to fulfil existing contracts, court cases being finalised and so on. These are the sensible and just features of an amicable parting of ways. Equally, we welcome the two protocols providing for continuing co-operation with Cyprus over our sovereign base areas and with Spain concerning Gibraltar. It is the protocol on Ireland, known as the backstop, which causes immense problems.

The proposed agreement deals only with the direct questions of how to disentangle ourselves from the European Union’s institutions. On 29 January, the Commons endorsed the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) requiring that the backstop be replaced with alternative arrangements, and that is what we are negotiating in Brussels at the moment.

The weaknesses of the backstop are manifest. There are legitimate fears that, if negotiations for a permanent UK-EU relationship break down, we may find ourselves legally obliged to be stuck in a customs union without end. Indeed, we have read my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General’s opinion, which worries many people. Were we to be stuck in a customs union, it would be a complete betrayal of voters and the referendum mandate, not to mention the Government’s solemn commitments to implement Brexit.

Given the current state of play, it looks as though there are four options at hand. The ideal solution is for the backstop to be withdrawn and the protocol to be withdrawn from the withdrawal agreement. A new protocol could be submitted committing the UK and the EU to sorting out a trade facilitation agreement using electronic documentation, trusted trader schemes and remote electronic monitoring of cross-border traffic, with no hard border or any kind of physical infrastructure.

It is not impossible to get such an agreement in place by 29 March, but it is unlikely, unfortunately, given the strong opposition within the EU to changing the agreed text. They simply do not want to unpick the agreement. Indeed, they have made that clear many times.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for putting forward his viewpoint in the Chamber today. No matter what the issue may be, the Unionist population in Northern Ireland are clear that they do not want a backstop, and if it is going to be removed, it has to be via a legally binding document that will reinforce and give us confidence in any process that goes forward. We do not want Northern Ireland to be treated any differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is saying that, so if we move forward, the backstop has to be removed or it has to be time limited within this term of Parliament because we can then control it in the House in the time that is available to us.

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I entirely agree with that. I have been working on this issue with international lawyers for some weeks precisely to try to implement what the Democratic Unionist party wants, first because that is the way to get this through Parliament and secondly because I agree with it. I agree with the DUP. In fact, I agree with the DUP on most things. If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will try to outline a legally enforceable way in which we can time-limit the backstop. That is terribly important. It has to be clear cut, legally enforceable and, above all, not subject to any kind of arbitration that is in any way in the hands of the EU. I am trying to get to where the DUP is, and if the hon. Gentleman will listen, I hope that I can help him out with a way forward. In fact, I hope that I can help out the EU and our Government.

We all know that the unfortunate thing is that the current deal cannot get through Parliament because people do not trust the EU not to spin things out, but the EU says that it will not unpick the agreement. That is why everyone says that there is an impasse. I am not sure that that is entirely correct. I think there is a way of proceeding.

I was saying before the hon. Gentleman’s intervention that we could get an agreement and get rid of the backstop altogether, but that is unlikely given the EU’s attitude. Secondly, there is a reasonable possibility that even without any amendments to the current agreement, “alternative arrangements” could start to operate on the Northern Irish border during the transition period. These would supersede the protocol and make it irrelevant before it could even be applied. Indeed, the Prime Minister has said many times that she does not even want the backstop to come into force. Unfortunately, but understandably, there is not enough trust in the Commons to rely on that happening.

Thirdly, there is the suggestion of a unilateral exit mechanism. It would be contained within the withdrawal agreement, which would be renegotiated, but the EU is unlikely to agree to any amendment that allows the UK to exit from the backstop if negotiations have broken down, without the EU’s consent. That is where we are at present. Even if such a thing were agreed, the EU could easily prevaricate and deny negotiations had broken down. That is why I made the point earlier that it is important that nothing is subject to international arbitration.

That leaves us with a fourth option: a clear time limit—it would be difficult to arbitrate about that, as we would have reached the time limit or we would not—or an end date for the backstop, which can be obtained by a conditional interpretative declaration. That is what I am now talking about.

I am not sure that in these debates we have had, because of the short time limits that we have been given, anybody has had the time to go into the legal background for this, so it is important that we put it on the record. As far as I know, my understanding of international law is correct, but of course, we have the Minister and my hon. Friends here, and they can put their own viewpoint forward. At least we can get this debate on the record. Let me try to explain.

There is a long-established practice of countries making unilateral statements when they ratify a treaty clarifying how they interpret the wording of a particular aspect of the treaty. The United Kingdom can interpret the wording in the agreement that the backstop is

“intended to apply only temporarily”

as meaning it must have an end date. What else is temporary? It has an end date, so it must end after a specified period. Such a declaration would be subject to the same rules that are applicable to reservations—another term of art in international law—but would not be a reservation itself, as these cannot be applied to bilateral treaties. Even if the other three options were pursued, whether individually, sequentially or simultaneously, the conditional interpretative declaration would be useful to have on hand already if the first three options ceased to be viable, or if the EU would not negotiate on that basis.

As international law provides that the rules for declarations follow the rules for reservations, it is useful to consult the United Nations International Law Commission’s “Guide to Practice on Reservations to Treaties”. Guideline 1.2 defines an interpretative declaration as

“a unilateral statement, however phrased or named, made by a State or an international organization, whereby that State or that organization purports to specify or clarify the meaning or scope of a treaty or of certain of its provisions.”

A conditional interpretative declaration is a more forceful variant of this instrument of international diplomacy whereby the United Kingdom would assert that its consent to be bound by the withdrawal agreement is dependent upon the interpretation that the backstop has an end date.

Lest one think that interpretative declarations are just a back-door way of applying a reservation to a bilateral treaty, it should be clarified that their applicability is much less extensive than that of a reservation. Conditional interpretative declarations cannot negate any part of a treaty. That is a vital part of what I am arguing. I am not trying to negate any part of the withdrawal agreement.

These declarations can only constrain the meaning given to part of a treaty. A state’s declaration when ratifying a multilateral treaty does not stand in the way of that state remaining a party to the treaty. With a conditional interpretative declaration to a bilateral accord, the outright rejection of the declaration by other parties means the treaty would not come into force. I am going to go into this in more detail in a moment.

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I want at this stage to ask my right hon. Friend to get on the record the fact that, of course, this is only a draft withdrawal agreement. Furthermore, it is not signed; we know that. If signed, it would be, prima facie, a treaty. Would the question of a manifest violation of our internal law arise if the consequences of what was in the withdrawal agreement vitiated the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom in relation to Northern Ireland?

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That is an interesting political argument, and I am not sure I am qualified to give a firm reply. However, there is clearly a lot of concern in the House of Commons, and if the EU is following debates such as this one, it should be aware that there is no way in which the House of Commons will ever vote for any agreement that in any way divides up the United Kingdom. I think we have to make that absolutely clear. If it wants to get a deal through, it has to try to listen to creative solutions, such as the one I am advocating.

I presume that the EU is absolutely sincere in saying that it wants a deal and that it is sincere, as Mr Juncker made clear today, in saying that no deal would be catastrophic not just for the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, but for the EU. I presume it is sincere, and it has to understand what my hon. Friend has said and find a way around it.

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I want to add a short and simple point to my right hon. Friend’s comment that this would be a political consideration. I used the words “manifest violation”, which is in fact a term of art that arises under article 46 of the Vienna convention. I thought I would put it on the record that this is not political, but legal.

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As always, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. One of the advantages of these debates is that we can get such legal points across and put them on the record, and I am grateful to him for making that clear.

With a conditional interpretative declaration to a bilateral accord, the outright rejection of the declaration by the other party means the treaty would not come into force, as I said before the interventions. While there is every chance that the EU might object to a conditional interpretative declaration, that objection might fall short of outright rejection. I want hon. Members to listen to that very carefully, because I am trying to find a way forward for Mr Juncker. If they like, I am actually trying to save his face. I am trying to give him an opportunity to object, but not to indulge in outright rejection.

The EU could argue that attempts during negotiations to achieve an end date were rejected, and I am sure it might start by arguing that. It might also argue that an end date would be incompatible with the concept of the three protocols forming an integral part of the agreement, as provided for in article 182 of the withdrawal agreement. However, perfectly valid counterpoints to those objections exist. We would need to argue that our declaration is compatible with our commitment to use “best endeavours” —a very important phrase—to negotiate “alternative arrangements” so that, as provided for, the backstop applies “temporarily”, if indeed it is ever applied at all. That is a fundamental point.

The fact that the backstop would not necessarily come into force under the terms of the agreement means that, in my view, it is not actually integral to the agreement at all. The termination of the backstop within a reasonable amount of time is fully in accord with the agreement, rather than an amendment to it. I therefore think that the arguments in favour of the applicability of just such a declaration are very strong.

What about the European Union’s likely response to such a move? There are four main possibilities. First, it could accept our interpretative declaration and move ahead with obtaining the consent of the European Parliament to the withdrawal agreement. This might include making a political protest, while accepting the declaration’s legality and applicability. That is the ideal response so far as we are concerned. As guideline 1.6.3 states:

“The interpretation resulting from an interpretative declaration made in respect of a bilateral treaty by a State or an international organization party to the treaty and accepted by the other party constitutes an authentic interpretation of that treaty.”

In other words, we would have obtained a legally binding commitment from the EU to end the backstop—victory.

Secondly, the EU could reply with an assertion that the interpretative declaration is in effect an attempt to impose a unilateral reservation, and therefore has no legal validity, but at the same time agree to negotiate solely on the question of an end date for the backstop to solve this issue head-on. This would mean it had abandoned its previous insistence that no further negotiations were possible—again, a way forward.

Thirdly, the EU might reply that the interpretative declaration has no legal validity, but request further negotiations in the hopes of obtaining something of value in exchange for giving way on an end date for the backstop.

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I commend my right hon. Friend for all his work on this issue, and for securing this debate. Unlike me, he is an eminent lawyer, and I am trying to get my head around some of the complexities of this issue. If we invoke this interpretative declaration and the EU objects, is that legally challengeable, and if so in what court?

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I think the EU probably would object politically, but that is not enough. That is the point. If it does not want the interpretative declaration to have effect and provide an end date for the backstop, there is only one way out of it: it must refuse to ratify the treaty. A protest or talk of further negotiations is not enough, and that in a sense is the beauty of this. That is why we have these vehicles in international law, and why they have been used on several occasions in the past by countries such as Argentina and others.

There is no point protesting. My hon. Friend says that this is a complicated legal argument, but it is not. It is terribly simple. It is incredibly simple. Under international law one can say, “We interpret this treaty in such a way.” We can deposit that when we ratify the treaty. It is not a codicil as such or a letter; it is deposited with the treaty and has all the legal enforceability of a treaty. If those who are ratifying the treaty with us want to escape from its obligations, there is only one way out: they have to refuse to ratify it. I suggest—I will make this clear again before I sit down—that for political reasons the EU would be unlikely to do that, because it would put all the onus of a no-deal scenario on to it.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for securing this debate—what he says is incredibly interesting, and I defer to him absolutely because he knows much more about this issue than I do. Could there be a situation where the UK makes a conditional interpretive declaration? He has indicated that such a declaration could not negate an aspect of the treaty, but could the EU come to the conclusion that it is not a valid interpretative declaration, due to the fact that it is trying to do something it cannot do—to negate something—and that because it is not valid the EU can ignore it, so the scenario that the right hon. Gentleman has indicated would not arise?

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That is an interesting point. I am interested in how the Minister will respond, but I think I can give a firm and strong reply. There is no wiggle room around this. The EU cannot say, “Well, you made this interpretative declaration. We don’t agree with it. We are going to carry on and ignore it, and we will impose this backstop on you for ever.” There is only one way out of it. I had better be careful in what I say, but I think I am right in saying that at the time of the ratification of the treaty, or within a reasonable time limit, the EU has to refuse to ratify the treaty, otherwise it is bound by it and that declaration is part of that treaty. As far as I am aware, there is absolutely no wiggle room. I know this issue is terribly important for the DUP. There is a lack of trust, and the DUP wants to shut down all possible wiggle room for the EU to get out of this. As far as I am aware, however, there is no way out other than for the EU to refuse to ratify the treaty. If the Minister disagrees with that he can say so when he responds to the debate.

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Could the right hon. Gentleman clarify that point? In the sphere of international law and disputes, if such a declaration is made and there is a dispute about the validity of that declaration—for example, if we believe it to be valid, but the EU does not—how will that issue be resolved or arbitrated? If there are two inconsistent positions, the EU could refuse to react by ignoring and refusing to accept the validity of the declaration. In international law, is there a clear arbitration pathway for that?

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The hon. Lady asks how it could be resolved by the EU. It simply refuses to ratify the treaty. There is no deal—end of story. The interpretative declaration falls, the withdrawal agreement falls. We have made it clear that we are only going to ratify the treaty on the basis of the interpretative declaration that there is an end date to the backstop. They say, “We don’t agree with that, so we’re not going to ratify the treaty”, and that is the end of it.

We cannot impose this. I think people have misunderstood in thinking that we can somehow impose this idea I have been talking about on the EU. We cannot impose our ideas on the EU, but it has to make it clear that it will refuse to ratify the treaty.

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Would it also be relevant to consider the situation whereby a reservation by one party to a multilateral treaty is only binding on another party when the second party has not made an objection? That, I think, is part of the parameters within which my right hon. Friend is making his argument. But of course it is not just a matter of whether they refuse it; it is whether they make an objection. Is that not something that also ought to be brought into the debate?

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Yes, it should be brought into the debate. There is no way a party can ignore the interpretative declaration and argue later in a court of international law that there were not aware of it or that it has no validity. It is pretty clear that this is the time to refuse to accept it.

There is, by the way, an argument—I do not want to get into this level of legal detail—about bilateral and multilateral treaties and letters of reservation, which I have talked about in the past. If I have talked about letters of reservation I apologise, because this would I think be a bilateral treaty with the EU, and therefore interpretative declarations are a more appropriate vehicle than letters of reservation. But I think that is almost to become too embroiled in legalisms and legal descriptions. The important thing is that the House understands that there is a way forward.

I was setting out the various scenarios for what might happen. Fourthly, the EU might reply that the submission of the interpretative declaration in fact invalidates the UK’s ratification of the withdrawal agreement and refuse to move on with obtaining the European Parliament’s consent so that the agreement can be fully ratified and come into force. Aside from the arguably dodgy legal grounds the EU would be on, because we would only be interpreting something that the withdrawal agreement says is the view of both parties, that—I have said this already, but I emphasise the point—would also have the effect of shifting responsibility for a no-deal Brexit from the UK on to the EU.

If we ratify the withdrawal agreement with a conditional interpretative declaration providing for a backstop end date, any ensuing deadlock could be ended in a single stroke by the EU simply deciding to accept the declaration. Again, it must be emphasised that under the terms of the backstop protocol it is perfectly possible that the backstop might never enter into force at all. The withdrawal agreement states that its

“provisions shall apply unless…they are superseded, in whole or in part, by a subsequent agreement”.

Both the UK and the EU are committed to “use their best endeavours” to conclude an agreement superseding the backstop by the end of 2020, the minimum transition period.

The essential purpose of a conditional interpretative declaration, then, is to achieve, before the end of the time limit, a set of trade facilitation procedures, predominantly by the extension of existing electronic customs procedures applied by the UK to imports from non-EU countries. It is vital that a conditional interpretative declaration brings the backstop to an end without being reliant upon a phrase such as, “subject to the withdrawal of negotiations”. That is a very important point. I know that some in the Government have argued that we could get some sort of codicil or declaration around a breakdown in negotiations, but the trouble is that all that is subject to arbitration. The EU could argue that it was still using its best endeavours to bring negotiations to an end and that it wanted to go to arbitration. That is where all the difficulties would come in and that is why I think that the end point date is much the best way of proceeding.

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On that point, if the arbitration arrangements to which my right hon. Friend is referring are by reference to the arrangements of the joint committee arbitration panel, that ultimately, insofar as it engages with European law, will be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice. That, of course, takes us back to a point we could not accept.

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I am really trying to find a way forward for the DUP to support the deal. I am trying to help the Government in all this. I know that one thing the DUP will never accept is anything where there is a whiff of arbitration by the EU, because it does not trust the EU, so we have to close that down. It is opposed to anything that may be subject to arbitration, and I understand its fears.

So long as one side is willing to talk, there is a debate about whether a breakdown in negotiations has been reached, so we have to be careful with that way forward. I am talking about a small legal step that is legally in line with the agreement but that politically would produce a major change, putting the UK on a better, more equal footing with the EU in the forthcoming negotiations on our permanent future relationship.

The EU does not want a no-deal Brexit, or that is what it has said. If the current deadlock continues and the EU forces a no-deal Brexit upon us, personally, I believe that it could be manageable. It might put us back in the driver’s seat and I should think that we would be able to conclude bilateral agreements to continue on current terms until long-term agreements are worked out. Given that we would continue our membership of the World Trade Organisation, its set of trade rules would apply in this situation, which means that in a sense it is not really no deal at all, and it certainly is not “crashing out”.

I know, however, that businesses are desperately seeking reassurance and that there are political problems, which I do not need to go into at the moment, about no-deal outcomes. I know that many farmers and agribusinesses in my constituency in Lincolnshire want to know the trading context of the coming years so that they can plan and adapt accordingly. While the withdrawal agreement is far from perfect—that is the nature of compromise—it delivers on some essentials, and we need to make good on our promise to the British people to deliver Brexit on time.

In conclusion, I hope all this is helpful. It is designed to try to achieve a compromise. It will not please everybody, but if we are not prepared to compromise, if us Brexiteers and our remainer friends try to get everything we or they want, one side or another may be in for a very big disappointment. I do not want to take any risks with Brexit—I am sorry, that is my view. I think that would be catastrophic for the Government. We have to deliver Brexit on 29 March, or within two or three weeks thereafter to get the proper legislation through. We have to get through a deal that Parliament can accept, and I hope that what I have been talking about this afternoon may be one small step in making that possible.

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I want to make just a few comments. I pay respect to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) for coming forward with this ingenious and no doubt carefully analysed proposal. However, because of the importance of this question, I would not want any smoke and mirrors to come out of this or, indeed, the mouth of the Attorney General when he makes his statement, as I believe he will in due course. I am not sure about its timing at the moment, but hon. Members may recall that I raised this question in the exchanges a couple of days ago, when I said that my European Scrutiny Committee is looking carefully at this matter.

Furthermore, there is the question of the validity of the Attorney General’s opinion or statement, or whatever form it takes when he makes it. It is something that ought to be done at least by Monday of next week to give everybody an opportunity to assess its nature—including some points that my right hon. Friend has made in this debate—to be sure that when he does make such a statement, it stands up. What we do not want is a smoke-and-mirrors operation. We do not want anything that will sound terribly important but, in practice, turns out to be effectively of less significance than it might sound when it is first uttered.

We had this situation during the Iraq war, when I was shadow Attorney General and I sought the opinion of the Attorney General, who was in the House of Lords, through various questions that I raised about him giving an opinion. Eventually, he came forward with a truncated opinion. Subsequently, despite the fact that it silenced a lot of critics during the debate itself, it would be fair to say that, actually, they were blinded by science and did not really know quite what he was talking about because it all came out so quickly. That is what we must avoid, which is why, as Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, I am insisting that we get plenty of time for proper examination of the wording that the Attorney General, who is in Brussels discussing this very question, comes up with.

I feel that that is an important warning to put down as a marker. We do not want to be bounced. With Chequers, the Cabinet was bounced—there is no doubt about that; the Government had been planning it for about 18 months. We do not want another bouncing operation. Were my right hon. Friend to put forward his proposal and after consideration—I know it has already gone to the Attorney General—his thinking were built into the discussions that our right hon. and learned Friend is having in Brussels as we speak, it is incredibly important that the House is not bounced by it. It is difficult enough—my right hon. Friend and I are pretty much here on our own, with the exception of our hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly). The House will be packed when—if—a statement is made on this subject. Before then, it must have been properly assessed and analysed, and any problems that might arise anticipated.

Let me give an example. As has been stated, the Attorney General in his advice to the Prime Minister concluded that in the situation of the backstop being activated

“the Protocol would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place”.

There is not even a mechanism for the EU and the UK to agree on termination of the backstop if negotiations were to break down. The Attorney General’s advice was restricted to the text of the protocol; he was not asked to consider whether the impact of the protocol could be constrained by a UK unilateral statement in the form of a conditional interpretive declaration.

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Unfortunately, I have to leave shortly, or I might miss my flight—I may do so anyway. This debate is incredibly interesting. I concur absolutely with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. What is important in all this is not a discussion of what is legally possible, or even what is legally probable; what many of us in the Democratic Unionist party and across this Chamber want is what is legally certain, in so far as legal certainty is possible to achieve. There are lots of interesting ideas, but that is critical: we must all be sure of the legal certainty, in so far as that is possible, before we can agree the way forward.

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I am deeply grateful to the hon. Lady because she expresses exactly my line of argument. I hope that it is understood that this is not a matter of being obstructive for its own sake. It is incredibly important that the House is not bounced, or confronted with smoke and mirrors or something Members do not completely understand, but then they all go off and vote and afterwards someone says, “Actually, that doesn’t stack up.” I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough entirely agrees with me on that, and I know the Minister does, too—

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indicated assent.

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I see him nodding his head, for which I am grateful. It really is important. We are not talking about something like a free trade agreement, like the one with Canada—the CETA arrangements—at which my Committee has also been looking very closely. In fact, it is a matter of profound and fundamental constitutional significance, and I am deeply concerned that the EU has taken an intransigent position.

We know that Martin Selmayr is reputed to have said that the price the United Kingdom will have to pay for the way in which it has carried on—I am paraphrasing—is Northern Ireland. We know that there are powerful forces in the Republic who want a united Ireland, and there are also those who believe that the whole backstop argument has been engineered to lead to a border poll and ultimately a united Ireland. There are some very clever lawyers at work in all this. It is our job in the House, with such resources as are available to us, to try to penetrate the fog and make it crystal clear that no solution that would have the effect of undermining the constitutional status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom could possibly be put forward.

I do not think that I need to say much more. Mine is a profound concern, but I am sure that it will be understood in Downing Street and in the Attorney General’s own mind. Let me simply say that I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough for the way in which he has set out what I have understood him to be seeking to achieve. The danger would arise if we ended up taking a route that looked plausibly good and then turned out to be not merely a bear trap but a disaster.

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In my nine years in the House, I have not experienced such an extensive Adjournment debate, and I am very grateful for it. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) on securing it.

The issue of the backstop reflects our commitment to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. I know from history that my right hon. Friend has experience of trade matters. He was an Under-Secretary of State, as I am today—he was an Under-Secretary in the Department of Trade and Industry—and he speaks as a lawyer, so he has considerable expertise in many of these issues. I should also point out that he has engaged with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on precisely this issue of the conditional interpretative declaration. I shall say a few words about that later in my speech.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, as are the Government, for sharing his thoughts on a mechanism that was not previously known to me. I read his letter with due consideration, and I have done my own research in addition to that with my team in the Department. We have our own views on the strength and plausibility of this mechanism.

As the House will recall, Members sent a clear signal to the Government, and to the country, that a deal could be supported, but that that support was conditional. In the only positive expression of its desired means to achieve our exit from the EU, the House asserted that to secure support for the withdrawal agreement, legally binding changes to the backstop would be required. I must stress that the Government are entirely convinced that that is the question that we need to address, and on which we need to make some measure of progress.

My right hon. Friend highlighted one possible means by which a change to the backstop could be secured. We are still committed to legally binding changes that would deal with the concerns about the backstop that have been expressed by Members on both sides of the House. As for the substance of the changes that we are seeking, we are still looking at various means: we have not necessarily taken one route or another.

I note that the Opposition Benches are entirely empty, but, as a courtesy to the House, I will address those empty Benches.

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Order. Just as a matter of fact, I sincerely hope that the Minister will be addressing the Chair and not any Benches in particular; and just as a tip, if he does address the Chair, he will find that the microphone picks up his voice better because of the way in which it is adjusted.

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I thank you very much for those tips, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was just making a rather flippant observation; I do not think I have ever seen entirely empty Opposition Benches.

Clearly the Government and the Prime Minister have set out three possible routes—three ways in which the backstop can be addressed. Members will know those three options, but for the sake of the record we should recapitulate. The first was whether the backstop could be replaced with alternative arrangements, and those arrangements are expressed exactly in the political declaration. They are arrangements that will avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and this process has been constructively led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and he has been engaging with MPs across the House on that issue.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also discussed alternative arrangements with the ongoing alternative arrangements working group in Brussels and with Mr Barnier. The Commission has changed its language over the last few weeks and is beginning to engage seriously with the proposals we have suggested. Although the Commission has expressed some concern about the viability of alternative arrangements, I would suggest that it is more flexible and open to these alternative arrangements than has been the case hitherto.

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Will the Minister also accept that, as he has made clear, the only basis on which this entire analysis and investigation and possible wording could be effective in the Government’s mind would be if it were legally binding? However, it is manifestly obvious that the political declaration is not legally binding and therefore to conduct the alternative arrangements on the basis of a political declaration which is not legally binding simply does not wash?

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My hon. Friend with his customary acuity stresses and reinforces what I and the Government have already said: we are seeking legally binding changes to the backstop.

The Government have also looked at the issue of a time limit to the existing backstop, and this is where the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough plays its part. His suggestion is that conditional interpretative declarations could be employed as a mechanism for interpreting what exactly is meant by “temporary” in relation to the backstop and defining this in such a way that results in the fact that the UK would not be bound indefinitely to the backstop. It is an elegant solution on first reading, but an issue has arisen as to exactly how binding such a declaration would be. My guidance has been that any changes would still have to be jointly agreed by both parties, and that is a key aspect we must consider. My right hon. Friend has pointed the way on this: in the withdrawal agreement, which I have studied carefully, the Northern Ireland protocol, which is about 185 pages long, sets out in clear, some might even say stark, terms the role of the Joint Committee and the fact that any end of the backstop would have to be mutually agreed. It is unclear to me and a number of people who have looked at this in the interests of the Government whether such a conditional interpretative declaration would allow the UK unilaterally to impose an end date for the protocol. My right hon. Friend in his comprehensive and excellent speech also suggested that such a declaration could not contravene the withdrawal agreement itself.

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The other point to throw into this equation is the question of whether the European Court of Justice would, at the end of this process, able to adjudicate on the outcome, because it would be manifestly in the minds of the EU that this matter engaged European law.

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As my hon. Friend will know, the status of the backstop will be subject, I suppose, to the scrutiny of the Joint Committee. He is suggesting that the Joint Committee will ultimately be somehow under the jurisdiction of the European Court. This is not actually—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

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My hon. Friend has raised an important point about the role of the Joint Committee and its supervision of the backstop, should we enter into one. This is precisely what we are negotiating: our ability to get a codicil or some form of change to the withdrawal agreement. That is precisely what is being debated, and we have to await the outcome of those negotiations.

I must stress that it is not entirely clear, despite my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough’s excellent efforts to reach a solution in this regard, that a conditional interpretive declaration would have the effect that he seeks in allowing the United Kingdom unilaterally to put an end to the backstop. This is an open question, and the mere fact that it is debatable does not provide the certainty and finality that we would seek in making the changes to the backstop that he would like to see.

Let me conclude by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough again for initiating and securing this debate. This is my first Adjournment debate, and I am delighted to have been so ably accompanied by two outstanding Members of this House who have graced our presence and contributed to debates, particularly on Europe, over many years. Like them, I was a Brexiteer, and I would like to reinforce the remarks that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough made about the need to reach finality on this. It is a remarkable testament to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that, in the course of their parliamentary careers, they will have seen us leave the EU. Perhaps they always believed that they would see this day, but this is something that should be noted nevertheless. It is extraordinary that we are now in the end phase of our membership of the EU, and that should not be forgotten.

The Government obviously continue to look at ideas as we seek to achieve changes to the backstop. My right hon. Friend has provided one possible vehicle for doing that, and I only alert him to some of the circumspect views that we have about this particular mechanism. This is an ongoing debate, and I would like to thank him sincerely for his contribution. He always provides useful detail and good sense in these debates, and I look forward to engaging with him further as we continue this discussion about the nature of Brexit and the future of our country after we leave the EU.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.