Charles Day

Will Britain really have a debt to the EU after Brexit?

If a lawyer advises you to pay money which you do not owe, and you do so, then you can sue that lawyer to compensate you for the loss. That’s because the lawyer owes his client a duty to not give wrong advice. Does a politician or a journalist owe that duty? Can we sue them if their advice is wrong?

We need to know an answer to this as a nation, because far too many people who should know better, are wrongly advising the British people that they owe a ‘debt’ to the EU. The people who use the word are not using it metaphorically, indeed how could they, we’ve been a net contributor to the club for years – there’s no moral debt. These people, like the MP Chris Bryant, often describe it as a ‘legal debt’, presumably to make it sound more believable.

Before giving advice a lawyer would have to consider the evidence. Does a politician? What is the evidence for a ‘legal debt’ from the UK to the EU?

A neutral committee of lawyers, assembled by the House of Lords, published a report on 4 March 2017 which considered all of the issues and concluded there was no legal debt. The less neutral, but no less able, Lawyers for Britain reached the same conclusion in September 2017.

Counter arguments are made, perhaps the best is by Michael Waibel of Cambridge University. He concludes there may be a legal obligation if Article 70 of the Vienna Convention applies, but recognises the ECJ’s jurisdiction ends when we leave. His argument has two problems: we’ve seen how the Vienna Convention does not apply generally to the issue in the problems over the backstop, and, even if he’s right, Article 70 is very vague, only giving the EU rights to money the UK owed under treaty prior to our termination.

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