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Analysis

White Paper to reveal what Brexit means. And pigs might fly

by Hugo Dixon | 16.05.2018

Theresa May is promising to tell us finally what Brexit means next month, in a White Paper that the government says will be its “most significant publication on the EU” since the referendum.

Don’t hold your breath. Expect, rather, another woolly mishmash of proposals that amount to the prime minister wanting to have her cake and eat it. Expect her then to have to eat her words when she confronts the reality that the EU won’t agree to what she wants.

The White Paper is supposed to set up negotiations on our future partnership with the EU in advance of the next European Council summit on June 28-29. A Cabinet source told the BBC it would “allow the UK to go and actually negotiate”. It will be more than 100 pages long, as if verbiage guarantees detailed policies.

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One hot potato is what policy to pick for customs. The Cabinet is in a state of perpetual war over whether to plump for May’s favoured “customs partnership” or Boris Johnson’s preferred “Max Fac” scheme. Further discussions yesterday failed to resolve the matter. The snag is that neither plan is viable – and the Cabinet has been told the customs partnership may not even be legal under international law, according to The Times.

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg says several cabinet ministers think we could just stay in the EU’s customs union – which is viable – until a solution is developed. Such epic can-kicking would be entirely in the prime minister’s character – but would also be a dereliction of duty.

Customs aren’t the only problem May is set to duck. The FT says the White Paper isn’t expected to describe in detail the “backstop” plan to keep the Irish border open if we fail to reach a trade deal that solves the problem. Stopping the return of frontier controls in Ireland is a key objective for the EU. It won’t be impressed that the prime minister is refusing to engage seriously on the topic.

Then there’s the issue of “regulatory alignment”. The government seems set to propose that our rules should match the EU’s immediately post-Brexit and then diverge over time. Brussels has already reacted coolly to this cockamamie scheme – and for good reason. The EU will not agree to be tied up in endless discussions with us about what is acceptable regulatory divergence and what is not, and what should be done if we do diverge.

We’ve been here before. First, May gave her Lancaster House speech. That was followed by the government’s White Paper, setting out its Brexit wishlist, after which the prime minister triggered Article 50. She has since had to surrender on most of her “red lines”. Here’s a handy reminder of her biggest Brexit flip-flops.

May is in such a mess because she triggered Article 50 without securing any concessions from the EU. Our former ambassador to the bloc told her we’d get “screwed” if we did that – and we sure have been.

The prime minister’s most recent big Brexit speech was at Mansion House in March. In it, she said she wanted to be “straight” with the people and “face up to some hard facts”. It would be nice to think she’ll do that in her new White Paper. But leopards don’t change their spots.

2 Responses to “White Paper to reveal what Brexit means. And pigs might fly”

  • The cabinet fighting over “custom partnership” or “max fac” is like two children arguing over which pet to ask their parents for: a unicorn or a dragon.

  • Hi Hugo.
    I note your contempt for PM May, and how Brexit is problematic in so many fronts.

    From what I see, the non-negotiables are that the UK is leaving the EU – irrespective of the naysayers on the sidelines crying foul, and no hard border with Ireland can exist. Customs/Duties, Laws, Citizen Rights etc are still up for negotiation.

    Who knows, after leaving th EU and with a whole lot of new facts at our disposal in the years to come, we may actually be better off?

    I am keen to hear your view on the way forward. Besides another costly People’s Vote (which already happened, albeit with less knowledge than we have now) , how would you propose we navigate through this mess?