Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex
What are the legal implications of Brexit? This is a huge issue, with many different elements, but for the first time, the CJEU will soon be ruling on it – at least as far as the EU side is concerned – subsequent to the UK leaving the EU.
A recent CJEU Advocate General’s opinion suggests answers to fast tracked questions referred from the Irish Supreme Court (on appeal from the Irish High Court’s judgment), concerning extradition from Ireland to the UK under both the withdrawal agreement and the EU/UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). The former treaty provides that the internal EU legal framework for simplified extradition – the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) law – still applied between the UK and EU during the transition period set out in that agreement, which lasted from 1 February 2020 to the end of that year. (As an exception, three Member States refused to hand over their own citizens, but Ireland was not one of them).
After that point, the separation provisions of that treaty applied: the EAW law still applies if a person was arrested on the basis of that law before the end of the transition period. If the EAW was issued before that date, but the fugitive was not arrested in time on the basis of the EAW law, the subsequent TCA provides that its extradition rules – which are similar, but not identical, to the EAW law – apply. (The TCA rules also apply to extradition requests first sent after the transition period ended, and the judgment in this case would also be relevant by analogy to those requests too).
The new case concerns two fugitives arrested in Ireland on the basis of British EAWs, who are challenging their extradition to the UK. Both EAWs were issued during the transition period, but one of them led to an arrest before the end of that period, hence the separation provisions kicked in, and the EAW law applies to the case. In the other case, the arrest took place after the end of this period, and so the TCA rules apply. The fugitive in the former case has already been convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison, whereas the fugitive in the latter case is subject to a pending prosecution for fourteen alleged criminal offences.
What's the legal issue? The two fugitives argue that they cannot be subject to these rules because even though Ireland agreed to both treaties in the EU Council, that country did not exercise a formal opt in as set out in the Justice and Home Affairs protocol relating to Ireland (and previously also applying to the UK) attached to the EU Treaties. If successful, their challenge could complicate not only extradition but other forms of criminal law cooperation between Ireland and the UK set out in the withdrawal agreement and TCA, in both directions (ie Irish requests to the UK too). It could also impact on criminal law cooperation between the UK and Denmark, which has a similar (but not identical) opt in protocol. (Criminal law cooperation would not entirely end, however, because there are other international treaties that would apply as a default, although they do not simplify cooperation as much as the treaties with the EU do).
The Advocate General’s opinion argues against the fugitives’ attempts to limit the scope of the treaties. First of all, she notes that prior CJEU case law on the competence to adopt EU laws (which extends equally to the competence to conclude international treaties) looks at the ‘predominant purpose’ of the act being adopted to determine what the competence to adopt it should be.
Applying that test to this case, in her view both the power to conclude the withdrawal agreement (Article 50 TEU) and the power to conclude association agreements (Article 217 TFEU, the legal basis to conclude the TCA on the EU side) are broad.
First, the Article 50 competence necessarily includes a wide scope of power to wrap up the legal relationship with the departing Member State, in particular as regards the separation provisions at issue in this case – although she also refers to broad powers over a transition period, during which these EAWs were issued (para 46):
To that end, as the Commission in particular explains, Article 50(2) TEU provides for the competence to conclude a single, comprehensive agreement, based on a single specific procedure, which encompasses all areas covered by the Treaties that are relevant to the withdrawal. Such an agreement covers the bringing to a conclusion of procedures conducted on the basis of EU law, which are ongoing at the time of withdrawal, as regards the withdrawing State. That requires detailed rules and arrangements in a vast number of different areas falling within the EU acquis. In order to ensure an orderly withdrawal in the interests of the European Union, its Member States and indeed the withdrawing State, those rules and arrangements may include transition periods during which, for limited periods after the withdrawal takes effect, EU law continues to apply to the withdrawing State.
While the rules in the withdrawal agreement ‘cover many different policies, including, in particular, the surrender regime in criminal cases’, and ‘[o]rdinarily, to conduct those policies the European Union would act under specific powers and would be required to respect restrictions on those powers, such as Protocol No 21’ (paras 49-50, footnote omitted):
However, in the light of the aim of the Withdrawal Agreement all of those specific policies are necessarily ancillary to the predominant overarching objective of providing a comprehensive regime for the transition from membership of the European Union to third-country status. This is an extremely broad objective in the sense that it must be possible for the measures required for its pursuit to concern a very wide variety of specific matters. Indeed, the agreement must be able to deal with the full range of matters covered by EU law.
This would have caused particular complications where the withdrawal agreement provided for powers exercised by unanimous voting, given that Article 50 foresees instead qualified majority voting in the Council to conclude such an agreement. In her view, this could not ‘be resolved by excluding from a withdrawal agreement matters requiring incompatible procedures because Article 50(2) TEU does not provide for any exceptions to the arrangements for a withdrawal’. More broadly, she justifies this interpretation by referring to ‘the exceptional situation of a withdrawal’: the UK example ‘has demonstrated’ that ‘such broad arrangements have to be made under intense political pressure and within a very short time frame’, and ‘[r]equiring unanimity in the Council or excluding certain matters from the general procedure would add complexity to that process and increase the risk that no agreement is reached’.
So the inclusion of specific rules on a subject cannot alter the characterisation of the agreement as a whole. Here the Advocate-General refers back by analogy to case law on development policy treaties (see discussion here), which has taken a similarly broad approach to the EU’s development policy powers, which can cover a wide range of issues that might be relevant to the development of non-EU countries. That case law has carved out an exception if the development policy treaties set out a specific obligation in a specific field which is distinct from development policy cooperation; but the opinion argues that even if that exception also applies to the Article 50 competence, these provisions of the withdrawal agreement do not go beyond the objective of securing an orderly withdrawal process. The attempted comparison with another Advocate-General’s opinion on the Istanbul Convention on violence against women (on which, see the discussion here) is wide of the mark, as the withdrawal agreement is obviously quite different from that treaty.
As for association agreements, relying on prior case law (for instance, Demirel), she argues that the power to conclude association agreements is also broad, encompassing special links between a non-EU country and the EU. Although the CJEU has pointed to specific legal competences applying within the framework of an association agreement, the Advocate-General correctly points out that this applies to measures implementing association agreements (referring to the judgment on social security and the association agreement with Turkey). As with Article 50 and development policy, she suggests that the power to conclude association agreements is a broad power encompassing many policy areas; and even if there is an exception relating to further concrete obligations in a specific field, it would again be irrelevant here because the TCA essentially continues the EAW system that previously applied between Ireland and the UK.
In principle it is too late now to prevent the conclusion of the withdrawal agreement or the TCA – unless time travel is possible. Perhaps people living in 2019 should be (should have been?) braced for an influx of (ex)Tory MPs hoping to prevent their past selves from voting for the same withdrawal agreement that now disgusts them: Owen Paterson driving up in a Randox-branded De Lorean, or a nudus Jacob Rees-Mogg telling a startled plebeian “I need your clothes, your boots and your penny farthing bicycle”.
But in a legal sense it is possible for a court to rule that the conclusion of a treaty (or the adoption of another legal act) was invalid from the outset, or at least (as in this case) that aspects of it have never applied – although it should be noted that the CJEU has in some cases limited the past effect of its judgments in such cases (cf Test-Achats). So even if the fugitives in this case were successful, the Court might take the view that the extradition provisions of the treaties still apply to Ireland on a provisional basis until the formalities of the opt in process are completed – which would seem likely in light of Ireland’s prior agreement to these agreements.
Is the analysis of the Advocate-General rejecting such arguments here convincing? On association agreements, the case law has indeed taken a broad view of their scope, with the guarantee for Member States in such cases consisting of the requirement for unanimity of Member States in the Council to conclude them. As for Article 50, the Wightman judgment of the CJEU has already interpreted that Article to provide for the ‘orderly withdrawal’ of a Member State – and the Advocate-General’s interpretation best reflects that interpretation.
While it does not necessarily follow from her analysis that the potentially permanent system set up by the Northern Ireland protocol is covered by the scope of Article 50 – as it goes beyond purely transitional or ‘winding up’ rules – her opinion points in that direction, referring to an ‘extremely broad’ power to address ‘the full range of matters covered by EU law’ via a ‘comprehensive regime’. If all that is needed is that a provision of the withdrawal agreement have a link with orderly withdrawal from the European Union, it is more easily arguable that the protocol satisfies that test.
Barnard & Peers: chapter 26
JHA4: chapter II:2, chapter II:3
Photo credit: diego_cue, via Wikimedia commons