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Analysis

Brexit report ‘gloomy’ because Brexit reality is gloomy

by Luke Lythgoe | 04.04.2017

Pro-Brexit MPs have slammed their own parliamentary committee’s report for being “gloomy” and “unduly negative”. Their hostility is revealing, since the document raises challenging, evidence-based questions about the government’s Brexit negotiation position.

Six MPs eventually voted against the publication, with only 10 members of the Exiting the European Union Committee backing it. Former culture secretary John Whittingdale called the document “unduly negative” while former justice minister Dominic Raab dubbed it “rushed, skewed and partisan”.

It isn’t. But neither does it set out to be “a devastating critique of the shambles that is the Conservative Brexit strategy”, as Lib Dem committee member Alistair Carmichael claims. Rather, it raises sobering questions and makes sensible recommendations about the monumental negotiating task ahead. As committee chair Hilary Benn told the BBC: “It’s fair, it’s reasonable, it’s based on the evidence.”

Gibraltar has already shown how real these difficulties ahead are. The Rock was a rare issue on which the report was relatively upbeat, describing the “confidence” of Gibraltar’s chief minister that “the UK Government would find solutions to the challenges that leaving the EU presents”. Two days after the report went to the printers, Brexiters were launching Falklands-inspired threats at Spain.

Here are some of the key Brexit debates into which the report seeks more clarity, coherence and realism from the government.

EU citizens

It is hardly doom-mongering for the report to suggest that leaving the EU with no deal “could put [EU nationals living in the UK] in an uncertain position”. If anything, this understates the potentially nightmarish reality.

The report recommends “a stand-alone and separate deal” independent of the outcome of the rest of the negotiations, and welcomes recent meetings between negotiators and representatives of expat groups as “a positive step towards an early resolution”.

Ireland

The report warns that the economic impact of leaving the EU without a deal on tariff-free trade would be “extremely serious and damaging” on both sides of the Irish border, especially on the agri-food industry. Just one example: a bottle of Bailey’s must cross the border multiple times during manufacture.

Rather than dismissing the border issue out of hand, as Leavers like Boris Johnson did during the referendum, the committee joins calls to reach a solution on this “complex challenge” as soon as possible.

Security

The report is largely positive about security. It welcomes the government’s commitment to continue cooperation on foreign policy and defence. It points to “precedents for agreements” similar to the European Arrest Warrant in which the UK won’t have to cede control to the European Court of Justice. It even sees the possibility of “an imaginative solution” to continue cooperation with Europol, despite clear “technical obstacles”.

Trade

The report rightly calls the government’s plans for a UK-EU customs arrangement “vague”, with little detail beyond the intention to leave the Common External Tariff (CET) which sets the same tariffs on non-EU imports for all EU members. It also sensibly flags “a risk” that the EU won’t let the UK leave the CET while keeping tariff-free trade.

This is not “unduly negative” – it is realistic. The report calls for more contingency planning from the government for a “no deal” scenario in which the UK relies on World Trade Organisation rules. Similarly it insists the government “urgently develop resources and expertise for trade negotiations” and establish early on whether it can “grandfather” (i.e. keep the same preferential trade terms) the EU’s free trade deals with other countries.

Timing

The report points out two key things: that it would be unprecedented to do the kind of comprehensive free trade agreement Theresa May wants in two years; but that never before have two sides been so fully convergent in legal and regulatory terms. This, the report suggests, could mean a deal is done “more quickly than comparable agreements” such as the EU-Canada deal. It adds, however, that there is no evidence that the two-year timetable is realistic.

This is not gloomy, but rather an example of the sort of balanced expectation-management needed in the UK right now.

No deal

The part of the report which received most media attention says that Theresa May’s assertion that “no deal is better than a bad deal” is “unsubstantiated”. The report demands the government publish “a thorough assessment of the economic, legal and other implications” of leaving the EU with no deal in place.

The report argues that “the public and Parliament have a right to the maximum possible information” on the impact of no deal. Is this “skewed and partisan”? Only if you’re partisan against the public. Perhaps Brexiters are so hostile to this idea because they know just how dangerous this cliff-edge scenario would be.

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Edited by Stewart Fleming

2 Responses to “Brexit report ‘gloomy’ because Brexit reality is gloomy”

  • I never thought I would even think this let alone say it but I am beginning to believe that we are going to need a second referendum. The way this is being handled is bordering on insanity.

  • The report reads like a pretty careful and measured piece of work to me. On the “no deal” question it would be interesting to hear the present government’s reaction to paragraph 3.80 of the then government’s paper “Alternatives to membership: possible models for the UK outside the EU” published in March 2016. In discussing the WTO model this paragraph said: “The UK would face a stark choice: lower tariffs for all countries in the world, or raise tariffs with respect to the EU. The first option would undermine our position in future trade negotiations. The second option would raise costs for businesses and consumers.” I believe Mrs May is/was a member of both governments.