The much-anticipated Brexit White Paper has been published but the Brexiteers are not happy.
Theresa May’s plan for Britain’s future relationship with the EU met immediate resistance from Brexiteers in her own party, with Jacob Rees-Mogg declaring that it failed to respect the result of the 2016 referendum.
And even US president Donald Trump suggested the prime minister was taking ‘a different route’ from the kind of Brexit which the UK voted for.
The plan was unveiled amid shambolic scenes in the House of Commons, as speaker John Bercow suspended proceedings in the middle of a statement by new Brexit secretary Dominic Raab so MPs could go and get a copy of the White Paper he was announcing.
Raab told MPs the paper set out a vision for ‘a bold, ambitious and innovative new partnership with the EU, principled and practical, faithful to the referendum’.
But he was greeted by laughter and jeers from some MPs as he told them: ‘I am confident that a deal is in reach, given the success of the prime minister and her negotiating team so far.’
There was no immediate judgment on the White Paper by the EU, whose chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said only that he would assess its contents to see if they were ‘workable and realistic’ ahead of negotiations with Raab next week.
The 98-page document sets out a significantly ‘softer’ version of Brexit than desired by more eurosceptic Tories, and prompted the resignation of Boris Johnson and David Davis from May’s Cabinet earlier this week.
Extracts of Davis’s alternative White Paper, published on the ConservativeHome website, show that the former Brexit secretary was planning a ‘Canada plus plus plus’ free trade deal based on mutual recognition of independent systems of regulation.
By contrast, May’s plan involves the UK accepting a ‘common rulebook’ on trade in goods, with a treaty commitment to ongoing harmonisation with EU rules.
It envisages the UK entering an Association Agreement with the EU and making continued payments for participation in shared agencies and programmes.
And it states that an independent arbitration panel set up to resolve UK-EU disputes will be able to seek guidance from the European Court of Justice, but only on the interpretation of EU law.
Key elements of May’s proposals include:
• A formal institutional framework bringing leaders and ministers from the UK and EU together in a governing body with regular summits;
• A ‘robust’ independent panel to arbitrate on disputes, so that neither side’s courts have the final say;
• A free trade area in goods;
• New arrangements for services, giving each side the freedom to set their own rules;
• An end to free movement, with new ‘mobility’ rules allowing visa-free travel for tourism and temporary work and permitting companies to move talented staff between countries;
• Continued security co-operation, participation in Europol and a range of EU agencies.
Business welcomed proposals for a free trade area for goods and additional clarity around issues like mobility for workers.
CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn said: ‘Seeking a free trade area for goods and a common rulebook shows the Prime Minister has put pragmatism before politics and should be applauded.’
She added: ‘With three months left to go, it is now a race against time. The EU must now engage constructively and flexibly, as must politicians from all UK parties. This is a matter of national interest. There’s not a day to lose.’
But there was concern in the business community that May has ditched a plan for ‘mutual recognition’ of financial regulations, as well as ruling out the ‘equivalence’ scheme which permits access to EU markets by firms from outside the bloc.
The White Paper acknowledged that the new economic and regulatory arrangement for financial services being sought by the UK would not replicate the EU’s passporting regime. Services more generally ‘will not have current levels of access to each other’s markets’.
Mr Trump said it seemed the Prime Minister’s plans meant the UK was ‘getting at least partially involved back with the European Union’.
Borrowing one of May’s old slogans, Trump told a Brussels press conference: ‘I would say Brexit is Brexit. The people voted to break it up so I would imagine that’s what they would do, but maybe they’re taking a different route – I don’t know if that is what they voted for.’
Rees-Mogg said the package amounted to ‘vassalage’ for the UK, adding: ‘There are very few signs of the prime minister’s famous red lines.
‘It is a pale imitation of the paper prepared by David Davis, a bad deal for Britain. It is not something I would vote for nor is it what the British people voted for.’
Tory Brexiteer Sir Bill Cash, who chairs the Commons European Scrutiny Committee, told the Commons he was ‘deeply worried’ by the prospect that the ‘common rulebook’ would result in the UK being forced to accept European regulations.
Raab assured him there would be a ‘parliamentary lock’ and ‘proper democratic oversight’ of any future EU regulations translating into UK law.The White Paper states that the future framework for the post-Brexit relationship should be settled at the same time as the separate deal on the UK’s withdrawal.
It calls for negotiations to proceed ‘at pace’ with the aim of reaching substantive agreement later this year.