Friday

6th Dec 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit white paper is a clear break, with shades of grey

  • The White Paper is essentially a longer version of Theresa May’s speech on 17 January. (Photo: Number 10/Flickr)

British government proposals, known as white papers, rarely contain anything genuinely new.

Despite its 77 pages and grand title - The United Kingdom’s exit from and Partnership with the European Union - the government's Brexit white paper is essentially a longer version of Theresa May’s speech on January 17.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 30-day free trial.

... or join as a group

Even so, it contains numerous passages which underscore the scale of the UK’s imminent break from the EU.

“As we will no longer be members of the Single Market, we will not be required to make vast contributions to the EU budget,” the White Paper states, in one sentence nailing two sacred cows of European integration - the single market and the EU budget.

The clearest break, however, is on immigration. “In future, therefore, the Free Movement Directive will no longer apply and the migration of EU nationals will be subject to UK law.”

Those looking for lots of detail in the White Paper and certainty will be disappointed.

Even the section on immigration leaves a bit of wiggle room. The White Paper states that there “may be a phased process of implementation to prepare for the new arrangements”.

The days of UK contributions to the EU budget are not necessarily over either. “There may be European programmes in which we might want to participate. If so, it is reasonable that we should make an appropriate contribution,” the White Paper concedes.

Pragmatic and business-like

Much of the document is pragmatic and business-like - almost like the mandate for a conventional trade deal.

Alongside the usual optimism you get in a government document, plenty of care has been taken to guard against hostages to fortune.

The difference between the Brexit White Paper and a negotiating mandate for a trade deal is that failure to broker a deal on TTIP, for example, leaves nobody (even the negotiators who wasted their time) materially worse off.

Failure to reach agreement when the two-year deadline of Article 50 is up, will place individuals and businesses in a weaker and uncertain position than exists now. By triggering Article 50 and set out, albeit ambiguously, its strategy, the UK now has less leverage.

How much pragmatism actually exists in practice will be demonstrated by the UK’s approach to the inevitable transitional arrangements that will be required. This could last as long as five years after the completion of the first phase of withdrawal in 2019.

The lack of detail has prompted plenty of concern, particularly in the business community. In a note to clients on Thursday (2 February), Malcolm Barr, a JP Morgan economist, commented: “As a distillation of the state of knowledge within the UK government six months after the vote, and with the beginnings of a time-compressed negotiation just weeks away, the shallowness of the analysis and absence of detail are matters of great concern."

Barr won’t be alone. Bank executives and corporations are right to be worried because Brexit will not be for them.

The next step into the uncharted waters of Brexit will be Theresa May’s long-awaited letter to Council President Donald Tusk, which will probably be on the table when EU leaders meet in Brussels in March.

But Article 50 was not drafted with the expectation that it would ever be used. The treaty does not specify where the negotiations should take place, for example.

Michel Barnier's Commission unit will do the daily leg-work with their British counterparts led by Ambassador Tim Barrow. The big political decisions on the negotiations will be taken at the very top.

Existential threat

One of the most telling points made during two days of parliamentary debate on the Article 50 bill was former Chancellor George Osborne remark that “the government has chosen – and I respect this decision – not to make the economy the priority”.

A spokesperson for May insisted that Osborne was “speaking for himself” not the government. Yet Osborne was right.

If the six months since the June referendum has offered more confusion than clarity, the government has been unswerving that ending freedom of movement will be the UK’s most important "red line" in the negotiations.

If Britain’s refusal to budge on immigration means a punitive deal on single market access, then May will take it.

It is easy to accuse the May government of arrogance, hubris and naivety in their assumption that they will be able to cherry-pick as much access to the single market and other EU policy areas of their choice for a bargain price.

But eurocrats would be well-advised not to scoff or be complacent. The very existence of a White Paper on Britain leaving the EU would have been unimaginable as recently as a year ago.

Brexit represents an assault and existential threat to the EU’s long-term survival.

The risk to the EU is that other countries may look at the British blueprint and see much in it that they would like for themselves.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

Column / Brexit Briefing

British MPs back May's Brexit bill

Triggering Article 50 was backed by 498 to 114 MPs in the UK parliament, with the Scottish National Party and Labour rebels forming the bulk of the dissenting votes.

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit Britain cannot rely on Trump's trade vows

Theresa May came away from her meeting with Donald Trump bearing the promise of a future UK-US trade pact. The pledge was rich in symbolism, but not much else.

UK turns from EU to US in 'new age'

British PM to tell US that the two countries should upgrade their “special relationship” amid plans for early talks on a post-EU trade pact.

EU threatens legal action against UK over commissioner

The European Commission has started an infringement proceeding against the United Kingdom for failing to nominate a commissioner-candidate. The new commission, which wants to launch on 1 December, first requires a commissioner from each of the 28 EU states.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Latest News

  1. Migrants paying to get detained in Libyan centres
  2. Searching for solidarity in EU asylum policy
  3. Will Michel lead on lobbying transparency at Council?
  4. Blood from stone: What did British PR firm do for Malta?
  5. EU Commission defends Eurobarometer methodology
  6. Timmermans warns on cost of inaction on climate
  7. Development to fuel change
  8. Does EU have role in stopping backsliding in Georgia?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us