Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

UK's May moves towards 'soft' Brexit

  • PM Theresa May at the Nato summit in Brussels, on the day of the publication of her government's Brexit white paper, and just hours before welcoming US president DonaldTrump in London (Photo: Number 10 - Flickr)

British prime minister Theresa May on Thursday (12 July) moved towards a softer Brexit, proposing an "association agreement" with the EU as the UK government published its policy paper on what relationship it seeks with the EU after Brexit.

The document, known as a 'white paper' in UK parliamentary terms, was agreed by the cabinet last Friday and triggered the departure of Brexit secretary David Davis and foreign minister Boris Johnson after they deemed that May's strategy will align the UK too closely with the EU in the future.

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The paper proposes an "association agreement" with the EU, with a free trade arrangement for goods at its heart.

But it says the UK also wants its own policies for services and to end the free movement of people. It wants to continue participating in some EU agencies, such as Europol and Eurojust, while it seeks continued cooperation with foreign and defence policies. It also proposes to collect tariffs on the EU's behalf - an idea that has already been rejected by the bloc.

The EU's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, tweeted that his team will analyse the white paper with member states and the European Parliament.

Here are the main points of the 104 page-long document:

Balanced

The paper says the UK wants a "principled and practical" Brexit, that strikes the "new and fair" balance between rights and obligations.

The document also says the white paper means a "redoubling of efforts in the negotiations," which EU partners will be glad to hear as the withdrawal agreement was expected to be negotiated by October, so it can be approved by the UK and EU parliaments. At their latest summit, the leaders of the EU-27 warned that preparations should be made for all scenarios, including for a no deal possibility.

Free trade for goods

The UK's aim is to create a free trade area for goods, so that there is frictionless border access to the EU's markets and vice-versa. The paper says that with the trade deal, a hard border on the island of Ireland could be avoided and supply chains could be protected.

The government also suggests that if the trade agreement comes into effect there would be no need for a so-called backstop, a guarantee arrangement that would make sure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland (UK) and the Republic of Ireland (EU).

According to the paper, that would "enable products to only undergo one set of approvals and authorisations in either market, before being sold in both".

This would also mean that the UK would continue to abide by the EU's common rulebook on food and agriculture standards. It would also entail the UK's continued participation in EU agencies for chemicals, aviation, and medicines.

The UK also wants to have a say, when the EU introduces new rules that could affect these policies.

The UK wants a separate deal on services, giving the UK freedom "to chart its own path in the areas that matter most for its economy". The UK holding onto its control over the financial services sector, however, also means that UK-based banks will lose their access to EU markets.

Free movement

Free movement will end, the white paper declares, but at the same time the UK wants to make sure that businesses will be able to get the right staff, and Britain can still attract the "brightest and the best". The paper pledges that the UK will remain an open and tolerant country.

EU-UK migration rules will need to be worked out, but tourism would remain visa-free.

The EU has been adamant that the UK cannot pick and chose from parts of the single market, meaning it cannot expect the free movement of goods while rejecting the free movement of people.

Customs

The white paper proposes a "facilitated customs arrangement", that would see the UK and EU become a "combined customs territory", in which the UK would apply the EU's tariffs and trade policies for goods intended for the bloc, and domestic tariffs imposed for goods heading for the UK markets.

According to the document, this would ensure frictionless trade for the majority of UK trade. The government would "explore options to use future advancements in technology to streamline the process".

EU officials have said this idea seems to be a reshuffling of Theresa May's earlier idea of a "customs partnership" that would have seen the UK collect tariffs on the bloc's behalf to avoid a hard Irish border.

This was rejected by the EU for a variety of reasons, partly because it would be technically difficult to implement. EU officials also insists that the objective of avoiding a hard border needs to be secured even before any free trade area for goods could be set up.

Security

The white paper sets out for the UK and the EU to continue sharing data and information, and a continued participation for the UK in agencies such as Europol and Eurojust, the existing police and justice cooperations. The UK also wants a continued cooperation on foreign, defence, and development policies.

Court

The UK government also indicated a limited space for the EU's top court's jurisdiction in the life of UK courts - for instance, in cases of UK participation in EU agencies, which could anger Conservative MP Brexiteers.

The European Court of Justice would have a say when there is a dispute over the interpretation of EU rules that the UK has agreed to.

But the white paper says that under the proposed association agreement independent courts should rule in cases of disputes.

A joint committee of officials would oversee the daily management of the agreement, according to the proposal.

Rebellion

Theresa May faces a rebellion among her Conservative MPs, some of whom think her proposed alignment with the EU is too close. Some of these rebel MPs want to publish a rival white paper proposed by former Brexit secretary David Davis, who quit on Monday.

May faces an almost impossible balancing act as she tries to secure a deal on withdrawal with the EU in time and keep her hardline MPs on her side, who want a clean break with the bloc. Not least, she also has to satisfy a handful of anti-EU but UK-unionist Northern Irish MPs, the Democratic Unionist Party, on whom she relies for a majority.

US president Donald Trump, just before going to the UK for an official visit, appeared to criticism his host, May, for not giving British citizens the Brexit they had voted for.

"Brexit is Brexit. The people who voted for break it up so I would imagine that's what they would do, but maybe they're taking a different route – I don't know if that's what they voted for," Trump, a friend of Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, told reporters in Brussels at the end of the Nato summit there.

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