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What did we learn from the Brexit white paper?

Seventy-seven pages (but some of them grey), finished at 4.17am – and with one wildly inaccurate graph. Jill Rutter asks what we learnt from the Brexit white paper published yesterday.

Last week we set out six tests for the Brexit white paper, along with the hope that it would be more than a simple cut and paste of the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech.

What we learnt

The good news is that the Government did flesh out some of the background to the Prime Minister’s speech – even if quite a lot of the new material looks like padding rather than substance.

There is an acknowledgement that “ensuring a fair and equitable implementation of our future relationship with the EU requires provision for dispute resolution” (p.14), a reminder that we can throw off the yoke of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), but we will still have to submit to some sort of inter-national jurisdiction. There is even a handy annex setting out potential models.

While it re-iterates the Prime Minister’s point that we will no longer make a “vast” contribution to the EU budget, the white paper gives us some sense of where the UK might make “appropriate contributions” for the “European programmes in which we want to participate” (p.49). “Continued collaboration in science, research and technology” (p.59) is an indication that Horizon 2020 is on the list of cherries the UK Government might wish to pick, and the discussion of EU agencies (p.46) suggest Brexit might not mean Brexit for institutions like the European Medicines Agency, European Chemical Agency and the European (Financial Services) Supervisory Authorities.

Unsurprisingly, there were very warm noises about continued co-operation “in highly integrated sectors such as financial services”, where there will be “a legitimate interest in mutual co-operation arrangements that recognise the interconnectedness of markets” (p.42).

There is more detail on the issues Brexit raises for the key networked sectors: energy, transport and communications. Although the white paper makes clear that we are withdrawing from the European Atomic Energy Community (either because of a technicality about the 2008 European Union Amendment Act or because staying in would leave the UK subject to ECJ jurisdiction), it sets an aim of “maintaining close and effective arrangements for civil nuclear co-operation” (p.44).

On energy, we learn that we are “considering all options for the future relationship with the EU on energy, in particular to avoid disruption to the all-Ireland single electricity market” (p.43). We also get some hints of the complexity on aviation and road haulage (p.44) and hints of the freedoms we want on communications – some of which Ofcom Chief Executive Sharon White discussed at the IfG in December.

There is an acknowledgement that a new migration system will need to take account of “impacts on different sectors of the economy and the labour market” and that “we will need to understand the potential impacts of any proposed changes in all parts of the UK”. The white paper also admits that “any new immigration arrangements will be complex and Parliament will have an important role in considering these matters further” (a hint of additional primary legislation likely to be required beyond the Great Repeal Bill), with immigration being highlighted as an area that might require “a phased process of implementation” (p.27).

We are promised a white paper on the Great Repeal Bill, intended to transfer the entire European body of law (the ‘acquis’) into UK law, which comes with a new rider about precedents. ECJ judgements look set to still apply: “In general, the Government also believes that the preserved law should continue to be interpreted the same way as it is at the moment… It will be open to Parliament in the future to keep or change these laws” (p.10).

The Brexit white paper makes it clear that the Government is looking at this as a single negotiation, not as two separate negotiations that begin with a divorce as some in the EU suggest. For the European Commission, and the 27 member states, whether there are two deals or one, the talks will need to cover the financial settlement as a result of Brexit. Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK's former EU Ambassador, told us this week that the EU is estimating somewhere between €40 to 60bn. The white paper gives no clues on what the Government is thinking here, and also makes no mention of the future location of the European Medicines Agency.

What was missing?

The bad news is that the paper does not take us much further in understanding the assessment underpinning the Government’s key choices. We are asked to trust ministers’ judgements on why this Brexit is the best Brexit.

It also offers little comfort that there was substance behind the Government’s plan for new customs arrangements with the EU. If the Government believes that such an agreement is realistic, it should at least be able to articulate what the agreement would look like. The same applies to one of the trickiest subjects – the land border with the Republic of Ireland – where the paper again assumes that a solution would be found without providing any evidence to justify this confidence.

The paper repeats the Prime Minister’s promise that if talks were to end in a bad deal, the Government would walk away and face the cliff edge – but the paper gives no details of contingency planning to make this a realistic option. Ministers will find themselves boxed in when they claim that ‘no agreement’ is a realistic, but then cannot describe what it would look like (a fate that befell the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, in front of the Trade Committee this week).  

The verdict

If MPs had been asked whether the Government had shown itself ready to trigger Article 50, rather than whether to trigger Article 50 in principle, their verdict would have to have been “not yet proven”.  

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