UK’s skimpy Brexit plan exposes exit complexity

On February 2, the UK government issued a White Paper (WP) claiming to outline its Brexit plans.

It now looks likely that the UK government will be able to submit its notice to begin exit negotiations in early March.  It intends concluding those negotiations and securing ratification by the UK and EU legislatures in time for a formal exit by spring 2019.

Though the White Paper adds little to what had previously been said, it summarises the current state of planning for Brexit usefully.

  • Overall legal planning. The government wants to pass a Great Repeal Bill, transfering laws and rules applying in the UK under EU law into UK legislation on the day the UK leaves the EU. It plans limited immediate changes to those rules, leaving it to the UK Parliament after Brexit to decide on any repeals or amendments.
  • Future legal control Once Britain leaves the EU, the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice  of the EU will cease to apply. The WP is silent on the planned role of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), or of the European Convention on Human Rights, which many Brexit supporters want Britain to abandon or repatriate. But it acknowledges the need for a new mechanism to determine trade disputes between the UK and EU after Brexit
  • The UK’s devolved and overseas administrations will not be able to do separate deals with the EU. This affects in particular Scotland (where the nationalist party sees Brexit as a reason for demanding an independence referendum), Northern Ireland (where unrestricted movement across the border with the Irish Republic has been a crucial part of peace agreements) and Gibraltar (whose economy relies on an open border with Spain).

Leaving the EU creates far more serious problems in these three territories than in England, where the overwhelming majority of pro-Brexit votes were cast.

  • The Common Travel Area with Ireland is important. Though the White Paper provides no plans for ensuring it is preserved
  • The UK will control its own immigration. Removing the automatic right of EU citizens to move to Britain may need “a phased process of implementation to prepare for the new arrangements.”
  • Rights of UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK. The government estimates there are around 2.8 million non-UK EU citizens in the UK and around a million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU. It claims that “although many EU Member States favour such an agreement [to guarantee mutual rights], this has not proven possible.”
  • Workers’ rights in the UK. Among the most common complaints of pro-Brexit campaigners was burdensdome labour legislation. These appear to be ignored: the White Paper pledges that “this Government has committed not only to safeguard the rights of workers set out in European legislation, but to enhance them.”
  • Free trade with European markets. The WP says “The Government will prioritise securing the freest and most frictionless trade possible in goods and services between the UK and the EU. We will not be seeking membership of the Single Market, but will pursue instead a new strategic partnership with the EU, including an ambitious and comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and a new customs agreement.”

There are no proposals for how this will be done, or explanation of how Brexit will affect trade with EFTA (Norway, Switzerland and Iceland) or with Turkey, which has a Customs Union with the EU. The WP acknowledges that there may have to be provisional agreements for areas where negotiations cannot be concluding by 2019.

  • More free trade with non-EU markets. “By leaving the EU we will have the opportunity to strike free trade agreements with countries around the world. We will be champions of free trade driving forward liberalisation bilaterally, as well as in wider groupings, and we will continue to support the international rules based system”

In a world where the US is interested only in more exports, China is concerned only with reducing imports and India has made its lack of interest in free trade clear, this reads like insubstantial waffle. That is probably because it is.

The vagueness contrasts strongly with the extraordinarily precise and optimistic claims made by the UK’s Minster for Exiting the European Union right after the June Brexit refrendum

  • Britain’s role in science and innovation. The White Paper claims that “We will seek agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives.” Yet three days before, the government had announced its intention leave Euratom, the EU’s nuclear research programme. This affects Clothesource, as the programme is a significant employer around Clothesource HQ.
  • Security and anti-terror cooperation. “We will continue to work with the EU to preserve UK and European security, and to fight terrorism and uphold justice across Europe.
  • A smooth, orderly, exit “We want to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge, and we should consider the need for phasing in any new arrangements we require as the UK and the EU move towards a new partnership.”

The WP avoids any mention of a thirteenth key issue:

  • Finance. The EU has long-term plans, devised on the assumption the UK would remain a substantial net contributor indefinitely. The UK’s leaving creates financial consequences for the other 27 members: one of their negotiation demands is likely to be that the UK should fund those plans. Mrs May has indicated her initial negotiating stance will be to suggest the remaining EU states learn to live within their means without expecting subsidies from outside the EU.

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