Experts read the Brexit white paper – so you don’t have to

The government’s plan for Brexit revealed? PA/Daniel Leal-Olivas

Following months of criticism that her government is failing to provide sufficient information about its thinking on leaving the European Union, Theresa May has published a white paper, setting out the plan. The Conversation UK asked a group of academics to rifle through the 77 pages to pick out the important details.

The kick-off for a mature Brexit debate

Richard Whitman, director of the Global Europe Centre, University of Kent, and senior visiting fellow, Chatham House

The Brexit white paper is the most detailed statement yet of the government’s position on its future relationship with the EU. Some parts are cut and paste from May’s speech on January 17 but there is also much that is new in the 70-plus pages and it provides insight into the government’s thinking on what would be the ideal future relationship with the EU.

Three main themes stand out. First, the government has no blueprint for the future relationship with the EU. There are 12 areas in which it wants to reach agreement (these were bullet-pointed in the PM’s speech) but the overall form and shape of the ideal future relationship is difficult to grasp. The UK is not looking for one of the existing relationships that the EU has with a third country (such as the Norway, Switzerland, Turkey or Canada models). It instead wants a bespoke future relationship to cover issues not just of trade but also of societal and security relationships.

Second, the government accepts that there needs to be a mechanism in place to deal with future disputes between the EU and the UK. This features near the top of the white paper, signalling to negotiating partners in the EU that this is a linchpin to the UK’s view of an amicable settlement. It highlights that the UK is looking for a frictionless transition from a member state to a non-member state relationship.

Third, Brexit is clearly a two-union problem. There is not just the relationship with the European Union to be negotiated but also the Union of the United Kingdom to be re-calibrated. As devolution had not taken place when the UK joined the EU in 1973 the repatriation of powers from Brussels throws up a set of issues that need to be resolved with the devolved governments and administrations. The white paper raises more questions in this area than it answers.

In Brussels and other member state capitals, the white paper will be closely examined for the detail it provides on the UK’s negotiating stance for exiting the EU. In the UK, both inside and outside parliament, it provides the basis for a more substantive phase in the Brexit debate. The UK government’s thinking can now be more properly scrutinised, costed – and contested.

What the white paper doesn’t do

Katja Ziegler, Sir Robert Jennings professor of international law, University of Leicester

The Brexit white paper once more reveals the contradictory goals the UK government has for Britain after Brexit. And it does nothing to help provide a sense of order of priority between the conflicting goals from the forthcoming negotiations. In that sense Brexit is still defined by the tautology: Brexit means Brexit.

It reads like a crossover between a political manifesto and a briefing paper – including explanatory boxes and annexes – on some basic features of the EU and international trade and dispute settlement regimes. It does not tell us anything new, from controlling immigration, aiming to conclude trade agreements, embedding EU law through a “Great Repeal Act” and “a programme of secondary legislation” that ensues.

It is disappointing to see that even where a priority is identified – such as the continued protection for the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and vice-versa – there is no concrete plan of how to implement it. The mantra of “we want” is nowhere matched by a pinch of realism of what may be achievable, or even of the range of options. In that sense everything depends on others – the positions of the EU and other member states.

One cannot ignore the irony that in trying to gain control, the government seems to have lost it. Reading the white paper, I was left with a sense of futility: it took a lot of effort through the courts to defend parliament’s rights to have a say in the Brexit process. The white paper hardly provides a meaningful basis for parliament to fulfil its function to hold the government to account.

Parliament’s role from now on

Phil Syrpis, professor of EU law, University of Bristol

In late January, the Supreme Court ruled that ministers require the authority of primary legislation to justify giving notice to trigger Article 50. The focus has now shifted to parliament. On February 1, the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill passed with a huge majority in its first reading, with amendments to be debated in the coming weeks. And now the British prime minister, bowing to pressure, has published this white paper. Its contents will be debated in the months to come.

David Davis presents the paper to parliament. PA

The majority in the British Supreme Court expressed the fear that if parliament was not involved in the decision to trigger Article 50, the die would be cast, and there would be little scope for meaningful scrutiny of the government’s plan for Brexit. Parliament is now responsible for both the passage of legislation – the withdrawal bill, the Great Repeal Bill, and newly promised legislation on immigration and customs – and for scrutinising the executive via debates on the white paper. The white paper also confirms that the government will: “Put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both houses of parliament.”

It is constitutionally important that parliament is able to fulfil its constitutional obligations in both the legislative field, and to hold the executive to account. It must take all the opportunities it has to shape the course of Brexit.

What it says (and doesn’t say) about trade

Maria Garcia, senior lecturer in international relations, University of Bath

The white paper says the UK will ensure free trade with European markets and secure new trade agreements with countries outside the EU. How exactly it will do both these things is lacking in detail.

In terms of trade with the EU – the UK’s largest trading partner – it makes clear that the UK will not be seeking membership of the single market and the customs union. Instead it will pursue “an ambitious and comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and a new customs agreement”. This is in line with the government’s desire not to have free movement of people.

This smacks of the “have our cake and eat it” approach to Brexit. It recognises the importance of maintaining trade with the EU and assumes the UK will get a bespoke deal that differs from any other formal relationship the EU has established with non-EU members. It does concede the need to pay into EU coffers, though, to secure single market access.

Its policies for trade with the rest of the world are similarly lacking in detail and have a large element of wishful thinking. The government cannot sign trade deals until it has left the EU, but there was no detail in the white paper about what its post-Brexit tariff quotas will be and, more broadly, which sectors it wants to prioritise in gaining access to overseas markets (as well as those it may be willing to sacrifice). Until then, substantive negotiations are impossible.

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