Leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, Nick Clegg MP, has written to the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, urging him to clarity recent remarks he made to Parliament concerning the ratification of an UK-EU trade deal.
At a recent appearance before the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, Dr Fox asserted that a free trade deal between the UK and the EU could be agreed without the need to be ratified by national and regional parliaments of the 27 EU Member States. This is not only in contrast to expert opinion on the subject, including from the House of Commons Library, but directly contradicts the Government’s own position which was recently set out in their Command Paper on the subject.
As a result, Mr Clegg is calling on the Secretary of State to clarify his remarks at the earliest possible opportunity – either in writing or at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons.
The full text of the letter from Nick Clegg MP to Liam Fox is below:
I was surprised by the remarks you made to the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee on 26th October regarding the future trading relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. I am concerned that you may have inadvertently misled Parliament and the country, and so I am writing to ask you to clarify those assertions.
At the committee hearing, in response to a question about the experience of the CETA free trade agreement between the EU and Canada, you said that Britain could negotiate a free trade agreement with the European Union, and that the ratification process for this agreement would be ratified by the Council of Ministers, rather than by national and regional parliaments across the EU.
You said: “It is in the interests, quite clearly, following this experience [the ratification of CETA], of all concerned, so as to minimise any sort of economic, trade and political disruption, to ensure that is done with the minimal [sic] of fuss and it is done through that QMV process by Council, rather than being negotiated from outside, as CETA was.”
Your response implies that Her Majesty’s Government will aim for a so-called ‘mixed agreement’ with the EU – that is, an agreement that engages both EU and member state competences. Mixed agreements like CETA are, because of this, ratified not just by the European institutions, but also by the parliaments of the member states. Without the consent of every member state parliament, including the three regional parliaments of Belgium, such agreements cannot be ratified.
The implication of your remarks is clearly that this process need not be followed by Britain. Instead, you seem to be saying that a UK-EU free trade agreement could be agreed only by the Council of Ministers. This appears to be in direct contradiction to your government’s own Command Paper on the process for withdrawing from the European Union, which clearly states that "Individual Member States ratify the final new agreement nationally if it is a mixed agreement.”
The House of Commons Library also confirmed to me that this is the case and other experts agree. The Institute for Government’s assessment is that any mixed agreement will have to be adopted via the CETA route.
In addition, even in the unlikely event that the negotiation of a new comprehensive Free Trade Agreement could both be folded into the Article 50 process and concluded within two years, that does not escape the need for national ratification. The Article 50 process only covers the provisions governing the extrication of the UK from the EU. Any FTA negotiated would still operate on a separate track – legally and constitutionally – and would require a different kind of ratification.
The evidence, including that from your own government, clearly contradicts the information you gave to the Committee on 26th October. I suspect your remarks were not intended to deliberately mislead Parliament but they could be interpreted as having done so. I wanted to give you the opportunity to clarify your remarks – either in person in the House of Commons, by writing to the Committee, or by responding to this letter.
Speaking to the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee on 26 October 2016, Liam Fox said: “There are two separate elements there, Chair. Of course, the UK’s agreement, in terms of disaggregation with the European Union, is not a free trade agreement as such, but is dependent on QMV through the Council. It is therefore not subject to the same sort of veto as we have seen here. That sort of procedure would only be undertaken were we to leave the European Union after our Article 50 period without any agreement whatsoever and to seek a new FTA from outside. It is in the interests, quite clearly, following this experience, of all concerned, so as to minimise any sort of economic, trade and political disruption, to ensure that is done with the minimal of fuss and it is done though that QMV process by Council, rather than being negotiated from outside, as CETA was.”
The Government’s own ‘The process for withdrawing from the European Union’ paper asserted that: “Individual Member States ratify the final new agreement nationally if it is a mixed agreement.”
A briefing paper by the Institute for Government on ‘Brexit Negotiations’ concluded that: “The deal must first be agreed by the Council of the European Union. According to the UK Government’s briefing on the process for withdrawing from the EU, if the deal on the future relationship is a ‘mixed agreement’, meaning that it affects EU competences (e.g. on trade policy) and member state competence (e.g. on foreign policy), then it will require the unanimous support of Council members. The deal must also be approved by a simple majority vote of the European Parliament. It must then be ratified by all 27 member states. The deal will need to be ratified by the UK Parliament. Depending on the nature of the final agreement, this may be a difficult task in itself.”