PM has two weeks to put Brexit on paper. Good luck

by Nick Kent | 29.05.2018

Parliament is in recess but ministers are trying to agree the government’s white paper on the future relationship with the EU. They might as well have gone on holiday.

A fortnight ago Theresa May announced a white paper on the government’s plan for the future relationship with the EU. In 100 pages ministers would (finally) set out what they ultimately want to achieve from the Brexit negotiations. To have any influence over the crucial European Council meeting on 28/29 June, this paper will need to be published in two weeks’ time. There’s only one problem: ministers can’t agree what it should say.

The core problem for the UK is that we have never worked out what precisely we want from the EU. Instead the prime minister adopted the fantasy argument of the Brexiters – that the UK could have all of the benefits of EU membership but none of the disadvantages. Hence May’s red lines on the European Court of Justice, the customs union and the single market, and the promise of no large financial contributions to the EU in the future. But worse, ministers failed to grasp that the EU would never be prepared to agree to such a deal.

And so, after another round of failed negotiations last week, with the EU making clear its exasperation with the UK, the prime minister has cancelled ministerial visits and summoned her colleagues back to Whitehall to get the white paper agreed.

It’s not that they haven’t got a draft to consider – they have. Officials have done their work, but page after page has text in square brackets, meaning that it has not been agreed. Which is not surprising because the cabinet contains mutually incompatible visions of everything from future UK immigration policy to the extent of customs co-operation and trade links with the EU.

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May has won the argument on customs, for now, with her idea for a customs and regulatory alignment plan. But that doesn’t solve the problem of the Irish border. And putting it down on paper creates new problems. How long would the UK remain in such a customs relationship? How would it operate in practice? Would it restrict the ability of the UK to negotiate trade agreements with third countries? Parliament will want answers to these and other questions, and the EU will have its own views.

Ministers do largely agree on the future security relationship. They want the UK to be able to keep the EU’s extradition system as part of a strong security partnership. But the EU is playing hardball. It points out, for example, that Article 16 of the German constitution prevents extradition to a foreign country unless it is in the EU, so the UK can’t keep the European Arrest Warrant.  

The white paper is likely to be a sickly combination of treacle and fudge – treacly warm words about wanting a close security relationship with the EU, but several pages of fudge on the future UK/EU trading relationship.

May likes to put big decisions down on paper to make it harder for her dissenting colleagues to wriggle away from them. But without a sudden outbreak of realism in the cabinet, the white paper will repeat the government’s mistake since 2017 of believing that the UK can have all it wants from the EU and stick to its red lines. That won’t get ministers out of a mess of their own making and it will just wind the EU up even more.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe