The Brexit “White Paper”: a dead end

The long-awaited Brexit “White Paper” came out yesterday afternoon and was promptly torn to shreds in the subsequent debate in the House of Commons. The government has succeeded neither in keeping the Brexit hardliners happy nor in garnering the support of the advocates of a “soft Brexit”. From the viewpoint of the hardliners the deal is too “soft”, from that of the Remainers too “hard”. At the beginning of the week there had been hopes that the resignation of Brexit hardliners Davis and Johnson as well as the new push by the government would finally lead to the long-sought unity within the British government, but today there is no sense of unity left to be seen. The EU has not commented on the government’s proposal to date, but we suspect that it will have many (critical) questions. While the government’s fundamental approach, at least as intimated at Chequers last Friday, is in our opinion not wrong, in terms of how it has now been implemented it will have only very meagre prospects of success. The plan hinges on Great Britain and the EU signing a so-called “Facilitated Customs Arrangement (FCA)” – a free-trade zone for goods, in which there will be no customs duties at all between Great Britain and the EU. In order to guarantee that the trade in goods can proceed without any border controls, the government promises to uphold EU product standards (yet at the same time lays claim to a say in the EU agencies that are responsible for the strictly regulated product segments). Customs duties on goods imported into the EU via Great Britain would have to be collected by Great Britain and then passed on to the EU. The British government wants to see separate treaties governing each of the service sector and financial sector, but accepts that these cannot fully substitute for the status quo. During yesterday’s debate, chaos reigned in the House of Commons. The new Brexit Minister, Dominic Raab, had just stood up to speak when it emerged that no member of parliament had actually received a copy of the White Paper. This, or so many an MP later felt compelled to say, was symptomatic of the government’s Brexit policy. And the situation only calmed marginally once the debate actually got underway. The expected pushback came from the hardliners led by Jacob Rees-Mogg. May and Raab had probably reckoned with that and instead hoped for support from the advocates of a “soft Brexit”. However, it swiftly transpired that the new government proposal satisfied neither the Brexit hawks nor the doves seeking a “soft Brexit”. The hardliners find above all the promise that Britain will continue to adhere to EU product standards unpalatable. And they likewise do not approve of the vague formulations in the field of immigration. At the same time, from the viewpoint of the advocates of a “soft Brexit” it is simply not soft enough and they are also concerned that the EU will not agree to the proposal, which in a worst-case scenario could result in a “no deal” Brexit. As regards the EU, we will probably not get an official response until sometime next week. However, the view that the Brits are simply trying to EU cherry-pick could quickly firm up. And the accusation is not completely without justification. A close reading of the White Paper does indeed invariably leave one suspecting that Theresa May has again tried to square the circle, and has again failed. If the EU rejects May’s proposal and/or the House of Commons does not approve it (both being quite probable), then the Brits go back to square one. Even after two years of negotiations and acrimony, it would again be completely unclear how things are supposed to proceed. Quite apart from the fact that things on the domestic political front are more desperate than ever. The Tory party remains deeply divided, the Prime Minister is in an almost untenable situation, the opposition is calling for new elections, which the Conservatives will certainly not agree to, and the British people are getting increasingly dissatisfied. Even May’s resignation would hardly lead to tension easing. If she were to be replaced by a moderate Brexiteer, then nothing would change. If instead a Brexit hardliner took her place, the government would be opposed by a majority in the House of Commons. Either way, no one would have gained.

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