David Cameron’s deal with other EU member states could be challenged by the European court of justice, Michael Gove has said.
The justice secretary, who is one of six cabinet ministers campaigning to leave the EU, said Cameron’s changes do not have any legal status yet because they are not yet written into European treaties.
He said people should be aware that the ECJ stood above all nation states and could only interpret the law according to what is currently in the treaties.
Downing Street has rebuffed Gove’s view, saying it is “not true that this deal is not legally binding”.
“Britain’s new settlement in the EU has legal force and is an irreversible international law decision that requires the European court of justice to take it into account,” it said.
It cited the former director of legal services at the EU, Alan Dashwood, who said the deal was a binding legal agreement that could only be set aside with the agreement of all member states, including the UK. “So, in that sense, it is irreversible,” he said.
Cameron’s position was reinforced by Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, who said Gove was wrong and the fact it had not yet been incorporated into the treaties was “irrelevant”
“The idea the court can ignore the changes which have the force of international law is fanciful,” he added. Any challenge to the deal in the EU court of justice would likely take years to reach a verdict.
The row is the first major clash between No 10 and Gove since the cabinet minister announced on Saturday that he would reject Cameron’s deal and campaign for the UK to leave the EU.
Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, has written in the Daily Mail that he was tortured about choosing between his beliefs and loyalty to Cameron, an old friend and close political ally.
In his first interview since making his decision public, Gove told the BBC that because the changes were not incorporated into EU law, the court could “take a different view”.
He rejected suggestions that the prime minister was being misleading when he said the deal was legally binding. However, he clearly undermined Cameron’s argument, saying: “There are two things which are true. The first thing is the prime minister is right: this is an agreement between 28 nations and all have agreed that they will abide by it. But above those nations sits the European court of justice.”
Gove was supported by Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader and fellow leave campaigner, who said the justice secretary was “of course absolutely right” as the European court of justice “could strike down Mr Cameron’s EU deal”.
The issue of treaty change has been significant since Cameron promised that his renegotiations would be enshrined in EU law. He later conceded that his deal would only be written into EU treaties at a later date, which the eurosceptics have portrayed as “accepting a post-dated cheque”.
When his deal was announced, Cameron hailed it as a victory that he would get an opt-out from the EU’s mission of “ever closer union” and protections for the City of London incorporated into treaties in future.
Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Cameron had achieved clarity about the ways the UK was opting out from some EU powers.
“Ever closer union is not binding for the UK, and in future treaty change, it will be written exactly literally like this in the treaty so nobody can tell to British voters other things,” he said.
The dispute comes as the in campaign released its latest coordinated letter to the Telegraph warning that leaving the EU was a threat to national security. The signatories were 13 former admirals, generals and air chief marshals, following on from a letter of 36 FTSE 100 chiefs and other business leaders.
The former military chiefs, including Field Marshal Lord Bramall and former deputy Nato commander Gen Sir Richard Shirreff, said: “We are proud to have served our country, and to have played our part in keeping Britain safe ... In the forthcoming referendum, therefore, we are particularly concerned with one central question: will Britain be safer inside the EU or outside it? When we look at the world today, there seems to us only one answer.”
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