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Six tests for the Prime Minister's Brexit white paper

The long-promised Brexit white paper needs to give UK negotiators a clear mandate for phase two, rather than more options.

If it’s to be worth the wait, the long-promised Brexit white paper needs to give UK negotiators a clear mandate for phase two, rather than more options. Jill Rutter sets out the questions the white paper needs to answer.

At the Mansion House in March, the Prime Minister set out the five tests any deal with the EU would need to pass. As she and the Cabinet gather for their Chequers showdown, they might find it helpful to think about the tests their long-awaited white paper will need to pass.

Another rehash of the options might prevent walk-outs from the Cabinet, but will fail to move the negotiations on.

Test 1: Is the white paper comprehensive?

The white paper must cover all the headings under which the UK is seeking future cooperation with the EU – and not duck or park the issues that ministers can’t resolve between themselves. Delayed decision-making is already bedevilling Brexit preparations. The white paper cannot just focus on the trade agreement. It needs to also cover internal and external security cooperation, data protection rules (which will affect trade and security cooperation) and how the relationship will be governed.

Test 2: Does the UK have "realistic and workable" proposals?

After the European Council last week, Michel Barnier called on the UK to offer “realistic and workable proposals”. But the Government's ideas on areas of the future partnership remain at a very high level of generality. The white paper needs to turn these into a concrete set of detailed proposals. For example, it must explain how “regulatory alignment” – keeping UK rules in line with the EU’s – will work. That means vague words such as “substantial alignment” or “binding commitments” need to change into clear proposals. 

The white paper must also explain how the UK will update its rules when the EU's rules change, how those rules will be overseen and enforced, and how they could be squared with the genuine EU concerns about preserving the “integrity of the Single Market” (ensuring fair competition between member states) and the “legal autonomy of the EU” (the ability of the EU institutions to decide how EU law is enforced in the EU).

The need for concrete proposals does not just apply to the economic partnership. The UK also needs to set out in detail how the unprecedented security partnership it wants will work in practice. It also needs to be realistic on timelines. On customs, for instance, the 'max fac' option would take a long time to get ready. What does the Government want to happen in the interim?

Test 3: Does the white paper make it clear where the Government has moved?

This white paper needs to be aimed at EU interlocuteurs, not the Prime Minister’s backbenches. Her many concessions to date on, for example, European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisdiction, have been so coded to avoid inflaming Westminster that the EU negotiators have been able to rule them out as incompatible with the UK’s red lines. As we have argued, the EU's red lines now look firmer than the UK's. The white paper needs to make absolutely clear where the UK has moved, and what it is willing to accept – to give the Commission no excuses for misrepresenting the UK position.

Test 4: Has the UK taken any account of the EU’s positions?

The Commission seems to revel in ruling out UK propositions as unacceptable. But that does not absolve the UK from listening to the legitimate concerns of the EU – on legal autonomy, on threats to the coherence of the Single Market and on undermining its relationship with third countries. Rather than a dialogue of the deaf, with both sides appearing to talk past each other, the UK needs to engage with the EU’s arguments. 

Test 5: Is the UK position underpinned by evidence, analysis and external input?

The Government has been reluctant to furnish Parliament with official analyses of the impact of any Brexit option so far, and David Davis and his deputy Steve Baker have repeatedly heaped scorn on the ability of government economists to produce useful forecasts. The Government has promised to produce analysis to Parliament before the 'meaningful vote'. It would be even better if this white paper was transparent about the evidence base for the choices the Government was making. 

The Government must also explain how it has engaged the Scottish and Welsh governments, business and other interested groups – and how it proposes to keep them engaged as negotiations progress. The Department for Exiting the EU has said it is setting up a structure for sectoral engagement. We need detail on that as well.

Test 6: Does it solve the question of the Irish border?

An agreed Irish backstop stands in the way of any progress on the future framework. The UK needs urgently to table its own practical option for the Irish border backstop. The Prime Minister noted in her statement to Parliament yesterday that this was still unresolved. 

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