David Cameron’s EU renegotiation is not legally binding because it has not been enshrined in European treaties, the Justice Secretary has said.
Michael Gove, the government head of the British legal system, said he believed the agreement was “an improvement on the status quo” and that Mr Cameron had negotiated in good faith.
But he said the European Court of Justice could overrule the deal – potentially setting himself on a collision course with the Prime Minister.
“The European Court of Justice interprets the European Union treaties and until this agreement is embodied in Treaty change then the European Court of Justice is not bound by this agreement,” he told the BBC.
“What David Cameron has got is an agreement amongst 28 nation states. It’s an international law declaration.
“I don’t for a moment discount that – but ultimately, it is a matter of EU law and British law that only treaties have effect and that because these agreements that have been reached are not yet treaty change the ECJ could take a different view.
“I can only state what the facts are, and the facts are the ECJ is not bound by this agreement until treaties are agreed.”
Mr Gove, who is campaigning for Brexit, added that as an international law declaration the deal has “legal force in specific areas”.
He stopped short of directly criticising Mr Cameron directly and said the Prime Minister had not been “misleading” by repeating the claims about “legal force” despite the alleged lack of binding powers.
Downing Street says the deal has “legal force” and David Cameron says it will be deposited at the United Nations.
What has the EU ever done for us?
What has the EU ever done for us?
1/7 1. It gives you freedom to live, work and retire anywhere in Europe
As a member of the EU, UK citizens benefit from freedom of movement across the continent. Considered one of the so-called four pillars of the European Union, this freedom allows all EU citizens to live, work and travel in other member states.
2/7 2. It sustains millions of jobs
A report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, released in October 2015, suggested 3.1 million British jobs were linked to the UK’s exports to the EU.
3/7 3. Your holiday is much easier - and safer
Freedom to travel is one of the most exercised benefits of EU membership, with Britons having made 31 million visits to the EU in 2014 alone. But a lot of the benefits of being an EU citizen are either taken for granted or go unnoticed.
4/7 4. It means you're less likely to get ripped off
Consumer protection is a key benefit of the EU’s single market, and ensures members of the British public receive equal consumer rights when shopping anywhere in Europe.
5/7 5. It offers greater protection from terrorists, paedophiles, people traffickers and cyber-crime
Another example of a lesser-known advantage of EU membership is the benefit of cross-country coordination and cooperation in the fight against crime.
6/7 6. Our businesses depend on it
According to 71% of all members of the Confederation of British Influence (CBI), and 67 per cent of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the EU has had an overall positive impact on their business.
7/7 7. We have greater influence
Robin Niblett, Director of think-tank Chatham House, stated in a report published last year: “For a mid-sized country like the UK, which will never again be economically dominant either globally or regionally, and whose diplomatic and military resources are declining in relative terms, being a major player in a strong regional institution can offer a critical lever for international influence.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve, a pro-EU Conservative, dismissed Mr Gove’s suggestion.
“I suggest Michael Gove should consult his own departmental lawyers who may be able to enlighten him,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Mr Cameron’s deal includes provisions to cut EU regulations, exempt Britain from “ever closer union”, and single market protections for countries outside the euro.
The PM has also a negotiated a temporary power to reduce EU in-work migrant benefits for a limited period of time – though less than the four year ban he had originally proposed.
Eurosceptics have criticised the deal as “thin gruel” and “watered down” and polls suggest a large majority of the public believe the plan is a “bad deal for Britain”.
This weekend the Prime Minister announced that Britain would hold and in-out referendum on membership of the European Union on the 23 June.
Mr Cameron has allowed Conservative ministers to campaign on opposite sides of the referendum, reflecting the deep split in the Conservative party on the issue.