As expected, the Brexit White Paper published today by the government largely mirrors last month’s Lancaster House speech by the Prime Minister.
The pre-publication jokes on the White Paper’s expected content, including that it would be a three page red, white and blue document simply stating ‘Brexit means Brexit’, have been proved false. Yet, such witticisms have not been completely unfounded.
Today’s most significant announcement is that there will be another White Paper on the Great Repeal Bill, examining which elements of EU law the UK will keep, amend, or repeal.
At first glance, this seems an important and unprompted announcement from the government that has taken seven months to reluctantly publish a White Paper of limited substance. However, by withholding details on what exact laws will or will not be transferred into domestic law in March 2019, the Prime Minister is continuing to employ her tactic of revealing as little as possible to Parliament in the hope of strengthening the UK’s bargaining position.
No date has been provided for when this latest White Paper will be published, however the latest it could feasibly be released would be immediately prior to the formal announcement of the Great Repeal Bill in the 2017 Queen’s Speech.
The White Paper could be announced sooner if necessary to satisfy any significant body of disgruntled Conservative MPs – Education Committee Chair Neil Carmichael has already indicated possible future dissent in votes on Brexit. Indeed, the last-minute drafting of a semi-coherent document should not be discounted – work on the current Brexit White Paper continued until past 4am this morning.
Yet after the passage of the current Article 50 Bill, MPs will seemingly have a single chance to express their opinions on the Brexit agreement as a whole, with the White Paper stating that only the final deal will be put to a vote in both Houses of Parliament.
The White Paper does however expose a potential Achilles heel in the Prime Minister’s otherwise pithy approach to disclosing information to Parliament. The government has stated it will ‘ensure that the UK Parliament receives at least as much information as that received by members of the European Parliament.’
In a negotiation where the UK is already struggling to gain the upper-hand, it can be easily envisaged that a maverick Guy Verhofstadt could call on his counterpart Brexit negotiators in the European Commission and Council to make substantive negotiation material available to the European Parliament, effectively turning MPs into one of the EU’s most powerful negotiation tools.
Buried in the White Paper is also the admission that any new immigration arrangements may be phased to allow businesses to plan for new arrangements. Whilst a sensible acknowledgement from the government, just as the need for a transitional UK-EU relationship after March 2019 has been recognised, it remains to be seen how the Prime Minister will broach this sensitive topic with members of her own party, and indeed the electorate in 2020.
Much of the remainder of the White Paper reads as a cross between a guidebook to existing UK-EU arrangements and an extensive wish-list from the government. Whether it’s a new customs agreement with the EU or a phased exit process for the UK, the government is certain to be undertaking a significant amount of searching for arrangements they hope are possible in the next two years – the word ‘seek’ appears over 30 times in the document.
Armed with the White Paper, Brexit Secretary David Davis has seen it fit to declare that the UK’s ‘best days are still to come’.
Though, perhaps it is no coincidence that the number of Davis’ negotiating principles mirror the 12 stars of the EU flag. He may want to privately wish for success on each and every one of them.