Matt Bevington / Jul 2018
It was never a question of if, but of when and how the European Commission would reject Theresa May’s hard fought Chequers deal. This was published in full the UK government’s recent white paper. Yet it’s worth bearing in mind that, for all her apparent Brexit absolutism, Mrs May remains the EU’s best hope of deal.
Rejecting Chequers out of hand would have alienated ‘moderates’ in the UK, forced May to re-mark her red lines and probably made all serious political attempts at reaching a deal in the UK impossible. The Commission is having to handle the UK like an underachieiving child, encouraging good behaviour in the form of reaching some sort of compromise even if it is mostly unpalatable to both the EU and Brexiters alike.
The white paper is not so much cherry-picking as a pick ‘n’ mix—a bit of Ukraine, a bit of Norway, a (large) bit of Switzerland and the rest from Canada. The Commission did set out the available precedents after all, and the UK did choose - just not as the Commission had hoped.
More seriously, though, Chequers is flawed at its core because it comes at the future relationship backwards. To use a more appropriate metaphor for Brexit, the UK is trying to decide how many seats it wants, what colour paint it prefers and whether or not it wants a heated windscreen before it has actually decided what vehicle it would like.
Of course, the government would say it does know what model it wants. The white paper says the UK’s proposals “could take the form of an Association Agreement”, not an ambitious free trade agreement as before. Yet, on institutional arrangements it says that EU courts “will no longer have the power to make laws for the UK and the principles of direct effect and of the supremacy of EU law will no longer apply in the UK”.
So if it has chosen the vehicle it wants, it suffers from the important flaw of not having any wheels. The risks are at least twofold: not having an overarching model to fit the UK’s future relationship into means it’s hard to predict which of its proposals will stick and which will not. This means for businesses trying to take it at face value they have no idea whether what is being offered to them now will still be there is three or six months’ time.
We at The UK in a Changing Europe produced a report prior to the government’s white paper setting the minimums it needed to address to reduce uncertainty and move the talks forwards. The common theme—across customs, trade, regulation, governance, dispute settlement and many other areas—was that the government finally needed to make the hard choices between a very close economic relationship with the EU and broader legal autonomy. Without recognising this fundamental trade-off, the white paper was always going to be riddled with contradictions, and so it transpired.
Having said that, we went out of our way to recognise the extraordinarily difficult political environment in which the Prime Minister is operating. We are far from dealing with optimal circumstances, and any I-wouldn’t-start-from-here-ism would have been frankly self-indulgent.
However, the risk is that Mrs May appears not only to have lost control of her Cabinet, her party and parliament, but that she is divorced from reality, insisting her red lines remain fixed when frankly all but one (free movement) have already been crossed. The polling so far suggests, as she should have learned by now, the public haven’t and won’t buy it.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: Ireland. The UK made a grave tactical mistake by thinking, even as late as the June European Council, that the EU would junk Ireland for the sake of a wider deal with the UK. Much time was undoubtedly wasted waiting for Ireland to be thrown under a bus. Let’s hope that game of chicken has now ended. The UK has always said it wants to resolve the border via the future relationship and the white paper was an attempt to devise a UK-wide backstop via the backdoor—something the EU rejected in advance.
So despite the white paper being one of the most pored over government documents in decades, it could prove in the end to be obsolete. Unless we solve Ireland, there will be no substantive future relationship to negotiate, at least in the medium term. The white paper was an elaborate, but ultimately inadequate, attempt to resolve the issue. But the EU’s backstop proposal is equally unacceptable to the UK, and not something the UK signed up to in the December Joint Report. Movement will be required on both sides.
Finally, there’s parliament. Arguably the most difficult hurdle a deal of any kind will have to pass. Chequers, ironically, makes it harder for Theresa May to get a deal through because the minimums the white paper implies—i.e. regulatory alignment on goods—for the statement on the future relationship, which has to be passed alongside the Withdrawal Agreement, cannot be supported by Brexiters. This means May will be reliant on Labour votes. And the chance to effectively bring down the government on the issue it has dedicated its entire programme to will surely prove too tempting.
But of all metaphors for the government’s position perhaps the government itself is the best one. Built on shaky foundations, with no credible line of authority, patching together piecemeal agreements to make it from day to day and which will ultimately prove unsustainable. The white paper is a vision of Brexit in the government’s own image.