White Paper will not bridge chasm with hard Brexiteers or Brussels
Paper adds some detail to Chequers proposal but EU may dismiss key parts as unworkable
Bashed car with a banner reading “For sale – but no one’s buying May’s Brexit banger” is driven around Parliament Square in London. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
The British government’s White Paper on Brexit adds detail to the proposal agreed at Chequers last week but it does nothing to change the likely response from the European Union or to win over outraged Brexiteers on the Conservative backbenches.
The paper, which runs to almost 100 pages, calls for an association agreement between Britain and the EU, with full regulatory alignment for goods and agri-food, tariff-free trade, a customs arrangement to avoid friction at borders, continued membership of some EU agencies and a close security partnership.
Most of the proposals around customs and single market access have already been published, but the White Paper adds some detail on migration, opening the door to preferential treatment for EU nationals but only on terms agreed at Westminster. The document is candid about the cost of some of Britain’s choices, acknowledging that single market access will be diminished, particularly for services, which will not remain aligned with EU rules.
The White Paper also warns that, although parliament will be able to reject new EU regulations on goods, doing so would incur serious consequences, as would any breach of the agreement.
“The type of measures that could be imposed for different sorts of breaches would be technical, but could include financial penalties or suspension of specific obligations. The proportionality and duration of such temporary measures should be subject to challenge through independent arbitration. If the offending party failed to comply with the finding of the independent arbitration panel, the only option available to the complaining party would be to suspend parts of the future relationship on a temporary basis,” it says.
The White Paper claims that its proposals on customs and regulation would resolve the issue of the Border within the context of the overall relationship between Britain and the EU, ensuring that a backstop would never be used. Theresa May is committed to agreeing the legal text of a backstop with Brussels but the White Paper does not change Britain’s policy on the form it should take, or its rejection of a backstop that applies to Northern Ireland alone.
It does, however, include specific commitments to maintaining the current level of North-South co-operation on issues such as agriculture and energy.
“Northern Ireland and Ireland form a single epidemiological unit. The UK is fully committed to ensuring that the Northern Ireland Executive and North-South Ministerial Council can, through agreement, continue to pursue specific initiatives, such as the All Ireland Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, ” the paper says.
It says there will be no requirement “in any scenario” for new permits for transport services between the two parts of the island and makes a similarly unconditional commitment to preserving the all-island energy market. The paper’s section on mutual recognition of professional qualifications between the UK and the EU is “particularly relevant for the healthcare, education and veterinary/agri-food sectors in the context of North-South co-operation between Northern Ireland and Ireland”.
The significance of these commitments has almost as much to do with tone as substance at a time when EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has been attempting to reassure unionists about the impact of a Northern Ireland-only backstop. Barnier said last week that any checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea would be strictly “technical and operational” and would respect the UK’s constitutional order.
The White Paper’s rehearsal of the existing areas of North-South co-operation helps to reinforce Barnier’s assertion that the backstop’s reach will be limited and based on current arrangements.
The immediate response from Europe to the White Paper has been positive, but EU negotiators will almost certainly reject the idea of single market access for goods only and dismiss the customs proposal as unworkable. And at Westminster, Conservative Brexiteers lined up to denounce the White Paper, which Jacob Rees-Mogg described as representing “the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200.”
As one Brexiteer backbencher after another stood up in the Commons on Thursday to denounce or question the White Paper’s proposals, it remains difficult to see how May will find a majority in parliament for it. And that’s before she makes any further compromises with the EU during the remaining weeks of negotiations in Brussels.