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Analysis

Brussels is poised to unpick May’s White Paper

by Quentin Peel | 18.07.2018

When Theresa May finally published her long-delayed Brexit White Paper last week, there was an audible sigh of relief in Brussels. Don’t knock it too much, they said. At least we have something to negotiate. Already, that looks like wishful thinking.

Even as civil war in the Conservative party has raged over the document, and hard Brexiters forced May in parliament to retreat from key parts of her plan, it is clear that privately negotiators for the the other 27 EU countries already find the proposal unconvincing. “No one sees this as a real landing zone, apart from the Brits,” said one source quoted in The Times.

But they are not spelling it out in public. In Berlin, Brussels and Paris, to name but three capitals, May’s plight is followed more in sorrow than with anger. “Nobody wants to worsen the atmosphere in Britain,” comes the word from Berlin. “They want to stay in the single market for goods but not services, and they want to end freedom of movement. This could easily have been denounced as cherry-picking. We haven’t done so.”

Indeed, some officials involved in the Brexit negotiations admit they have not even bothered to read its full 98 pages yet – which is probably wise, considering that it is already being unpicked at Westminster. They have learned the hard way in Brussels to wait until the ink is dry.

Yet it is clear where the problems will lie: in fundamental questions that challenge core EU rules. The most obvious is the continuing UK determination to reject the free movement of people, while effectively staying in the single market for goods (but not services). It’s a full frontal attack on the indivisibility of the EU’s “four freedoms” (for people, goods, capital and services). There is no way they are going to agree that before Brexit.

The second “structural problem” is the UK plan to collect EU tariffs at the UK border on behalf of the EU. “Outsourcing an external border of the EU to the UK is just not going to fly,” says one close observer. Now the Brexiters have amended the plan to require the EU to collect tariffs on behalf of the UK, the EU27 are even less likely to agree.

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The other Brussels concern, stoked by the minuscule majorities May won for her proposals in the UK parliament this week, is that whatever deal she might agree in Brussels, she can’t guarantee approval at Westminster. There is a real fear that “no deal” may be the inevitable result. “We can’t make assumptions that the withdrawal agreement will get through Westminster,” said Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach. “It’s not evident… that the government of Britain has the majority for any form of Brexit, quite frankly.” The European Commission produced a paper yesterday calling for a much greater sense of urgency around such a disastrous outcome.

So the Commission’s negotiators are focusing all their efforts on getting a deal on the Withdrawal Agreement, leaving the long-term UK-EU relationship as vague as possible, to be finalised during the transition period. But the lack of clarity on an acceptable solution for the Irish border with Northern Ireland is blocking the Withdrawal Agreement.

If there is no certainty of a long-term deal to ensure the inner-Irish border remains invisible and non-existent in all but name, as it is now in line with the Good Friday peace agreement, then the “Irish backstop” will come into effect. As things stand, that would mean an alternative border in the Irish Sea – which is totally unacceptable to the great majority of Westminster MPs, not to mention the Democratic Unionist Party, on whom May depends for her majority.

The prime minister is set to visit the Irish border tomorrow. Perhaps she will have a brainwave while she’s there. But one thing is for sure: no deal is not better than a bad deal. Either would be a disaster for the UK, Ireland and the EU. A People’s Vote on the outcome is essential.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “Brussels is poised to unpick May’s White Paper”

  • A WAKE-UP CALL FOR UK CITIZENS WHOSE JOBS MAY BE IN JEOPARDY

    I couldn’t agree more with Quentin Peel’s article above.

    Whilst the EU remains professional and coherent, the Tories transform themselves into a mentally-retarded rabble. Never before have the Titanic deckchair arrangers had it so good.

    Due to this chaos and incompetence, it is quite clear that business from agriculture to aerospace must now ignore the UK government. I’m sure that they have already been planning for winding down their activities or intending to exit the UK for good.

    These companies have an obligation financially and morally to their owners, shareholders, and employees, to do this.

    Don’t you all remember that business leaders gave the government until Easter to provide them with assurances of the UK’s position on Brexit? Clarity? Pigs might fly! The time came and went, didn’t it? Yes, Boris spoke for the Tories considerable intellect when it comes to understanding economics: He said “Fxxx business”. Mmm. What about lost tax revenue and unemployment?

    Will businesses will start now to make some carefully worded press announcements to make clear their business plans? I hope so. This will be devastating for employees, but let’s face it, businesses must come clean.

    Fundamentally though, now is a wake-up call for UK citizens. Too many have not fully engaged themselves with the democracy they all cherish.

    They need rapidly to re-engage with politics. They need to read about Brexit and to understand its implications. I don’t believe they have yet grasped the perils of what is going on.

    Therefore, my message to them is: citizens, stop reading infantile “newspapers”, open your minds, start talking and start discussing what Brexit means for your family and jobs.

    Brexit will be a seismic change in the UK. Once Brexit takes place, the damage will be done, even if there is a path back into the EU.

    Therefore, I hope that businesses will start to help concentrate people’s minds by publicly announcing what they have, until now, not said very loudly.
    Wasn’t the saying, “it’s all about the economy, stupid”?