Brexit: Implications for the EU Reform of Investor-State Dispute Settlement

Sophie Nappert, 3 Verulam Buildings

Nikos Lavranos, EFILA

“Reproduced from Practical Law with the permission of the publishers. For further information visit www.practicallaw.com or call 020 7542 6664.”

Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) is an international arbitration mechanism that allows an investor from one country to bring arbitral proceedings directly against the state in which it has invested, provided that the investor’s home country and the host country of the investment have so agreed by treaty (see box ISDSbelow). ISDS is currently found in most modern international trade and investment agreements.

In the period since the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, conferring on the EU exclusive competence over foreign direct investment in the European space, the European Parliament and the trade ministers of key member states, such as Germany, France and the Netherlands, have perceived that ISDS presents a number of shortcomings. These concerns were crystallised in the responses to a public consultation on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), currently being negotiated between the EU and the US (see Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP): tracker).

ISDS

Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) is a dispute resolution mechanism modelled on international arbitration, allowing an investor from one country to bring arbitral proceedings directly against the country in which it has invested, pursuant to the provisions of a treaty between the investor’s home state and the state hosting the investment.

ISDS provisions are contained in most modern international agreements including free trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties and multilateral investment agreements. If an investor from one country (the “home state”) invests in another country (the “host state”), both of which have agreed to ISDS, and the host state violates the rights granted to the investor under the international agreement between the home state and the host state (such as the right not to have property expropriated without prompt, adequate and effective compensation), then that investor may take the host state to international arbitration rather than sue in the domestic courts of the host state.

As a result, the European Commission has now tabled a proposal for a new dispute settlement system, the international court system (ICS), to be used in the EU’s future trade and investment treaties and, in the Commission’s words, “paving the way for a multilateral investment court” (see Legal update, European Commission proposes Investment Court System for EU trade agreements).

Instead of investor-state disputes being determined by an arbitral tribunal appointed by the parties, the Commission’s proposal is to create a judicial, two-tiered body consisting of a Tribunal of First Instance and an Appellate Tribunal. Party-appointed arbitrators would be replaced with “judges” unilaterally pre-selected by the state parties. As a result, the resolution of investor-state disputes by way a one-shot final arbitral award will be replaced with a two-instance procedure allowing for appeals on points of both fact and law.

The ICS proposal constitutes a strong push towards the institutionalisation and judicialisation of investor-state dispute settlement and is inspired by the WTO (World Trade Organisation) dispute settlement model applicable to state-to-state trade disputes. The important hallmarks of arbitration such as flexibility, finality and party autonomy will be essentially erased (see box ICS proposal: the concerns).

The EU’s seismic shift on its ISDS policy coincides with the UK’s consideration of its future as a member of the EU. If Brexit comes to pass, there will be legal repercussions on a number of levels as regards the UK’s trade and investment commitments at international law, and the protections currently enjoyed by UK investors abroad, including the ability to enforce arbitration awards worldwide pursuant to the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (the New York Convention). This is uncharted territory in many respects, and the opacity surrounding the progress of the current negotiations on the TTIP with the US adds to the uncertainty and lack of clarity.

ICS proposal: the concerns

While ISDS has been tested for decades and is a known quantity, it remains to be seen whether the benefits claimed by the proponents of the ICS will actually materialise. The EU’s proposal assumes that the ICS will not be declared by the Court of Justice of the European Union to be incompatible with EU law, as the CJEU has done consistently for other international tribunals, latterly the European Court of Human Rights).

For example, critics of ISDS claim that it has failed to take proper account of other relevant policy areas such as human rights, environmental law, intellectual property law and the “regulatory policy space” of states generally. The current ICS proposal does not specifically address those issues, and thus on its face provides little more credibility and legitimacy than does ISDS.

Another example concerns the qualifications required by the “judges” and the process of their selection by the contracting parties.

The proposal states that the only qualifications required of ICS “judges” for appointment to the Tribunal of First Instance is that they should be qualified for judicial office or a “recognised jurist”. For the Appeal Tribunal, the requirements are of qualification for the highest judicial office or being a “recognised jurist”. Interestingly, while the ICS proposal insists on expertise in public international law for its judges, expertise in investment law is deemed merely to be “desirable”. There is no requirement that (any of) the judges should demonstrate expertise in the policy areas that have fired up public debate and the anti-ISDS sentiment, such as human rights or environmental law.

The ICS proposal leaves the judge selection process entirely to the contracting parties. No transparency, public hearing or consultation with users or investors is currently envisaged. In addition, the “judges” are to be paid by the contracting parties and can be re-appointed by them. The anti-ISDS debate at the root of the ICS proposal claimed that the party selection and payment of arbitrators cast doubt as to the independence and impartiality of those arbitrators. The ICS proposal is open to precisely the same criticism.

Moreover, ISDS has been recognised as providing flexibility and a dispute resolution process which engages both parties, the state and the investor, on an equal footing. By contrast, the ICS replaces this flexibility with a fixed set of rules, removing any participation from the investor claimant regarding for example the choice of arbitration rules and the selection of arbitrators.

These points highlight some of the concerns which call for further reflection and analysis regarding whether the ICS proposal is the improvement on the arbitration-modelled ISDS claimed by its proponents.

We set out below some of the potential implications, at both macro- and micro-levels.

Macro-level implications

The first macro-level issue is that Scotland and Northern Ireland have indicated that they may not wish to remain part of the UK post-Brexit. The prospect of a fragmented Britain (no longer the UK) raises the question of whether the EU or the US would consider it worthwhile to negotiate a trade and investment agreement with a dismembered Britain. It also raises the question of what leverage Britain in its new incarnation would have in such treaty negotiations, as opposed to that which it now enjoys as part of the EU.

Another question is Brexit’s potential impact on the existing 100 or so bilateral investment treaties (BITs) that the UK has with individual EU member states (intra-EU BITs), as well as with third states. A post-Brexit British state might be able to keep all these BITs containing the classic ISDS provisions assuming that its respective state counterparties agreed.

In this scenario, Britain would avoid the untested ICS proposal and its potential shortcomings, and become an interesting safe harbour for foreign investors who may find it attractive to structure their investments through it, thereby avoiding the current insecurity created by the ISDS reforms. If it considers it necessary and useful, post-Brexit Britain could seek to negotiate BITs with the EU (as a single entity), as well as those countries with which the EU has either signed or is negotiating trade and investment agreements, namely Canada, China, the US, Singapore and Vietnam.

The question arises, however, whether Britain, which currently appears to favour retaining ISDS over the ICS, would be able to impose ISDS provisions on potential counterparties given the EU’s push for the ICS to apply to future trade and investment treaties, and the willingness of at least some of the countries on this list to accept ICS.

Britain’s ability to do this is likely to be affected by which dispute settlement system ends up being included in the TTIP. If the ICS comes to feature in the TTIP, ISDS in its current, arbitration-based form faces an uncertain future.

One important aspect of post-Brexit Britain retaining ISDS in its arbitration form rests on the question whether Britain in its new incarnation has the ability to remain a party to the New York Convention, to which over 150 states are parties, and which is a significant part of the protection afforded to investors by ISDS.

Micro-level implications

At a micro-level, the international investment agreements (IIAs) that have recently been agreed by the EU and its relevant trading partners, but are still awaiting signature or ratification (namely, CETA (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada), the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the EU-Vietnam FTA), would have to be amended to reflect Brexit.

Whether these trading partners would consider it attractive to negotiate new deals with Britain is an open question. The time and effort involved in the negotiation and conclusion of IIAs is not to be underestimated. The intervening period would be marked by legal uncertainty, to the detriment of UK investors abroad and Britain’s economy.

Another question is whether Brexit would have any impact on the ongoing TTIP negotiations, in particular with regard to the EU’s internal process of consulting with member states in adopting certain negotiating positions. Prime Minister David Cameron is said to be in favour of closing the TTIP as soon as possible because he considers it to have the potential of delivering huge benefits for the UK. At the same time, he appears generally untroubled by the anti-ISDS debate currently raging in many other EU member states.

A real and potentially significant impact

In conclusion, Brexit’s impact on the EU’s trade and investment policy would be real, as would its impact on post-Brexit Britain’s geo-political clout in the trade and investment arena. In contrast, it might offer interesting advantages, for both the UK as a host state and for investors who perceive the EU’s current investment policy as counter-productive. These advantages, however, are likely only to be felt after a significant period of uncertainty whilst post-Brexit Britain finds its footing, and in the short term are outweighed by that uncertainty.

Finally, the prospect of Brexit might cause the European Commission, the European Parliament and other member states to re-think the scope of their proposed “reforms” of investment treaties and ISDS.


Sophie Nappert is an arbitrator in independent practice at 3 Verulam Buildings, and Nikos Lavranos is Secretary General at EFILA.

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