Aspirations, but little detail

The Government’s eagerly-awaited white paper, “The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union” appeared yesterday. It consists of over 70 pages in total, although one or two pages are blank.

It has twelve sections, which are as below:-

1. Providing certainty and clarity – We will provide certainty wherever we can as we approach the negotiations.

2. Taking control of our own laws – We will take control of our own statute book and bring an end to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the UK.

3. Strengthening the Union – We will secure a deal that works for the entire UK – for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and all parts of England. We remain fully committed to the Belfast Agreement and its successors.

4. Protecting our strong and historic ties with Ireland and maintaining the Common Travel Area – We will work to deliver a practical solution that allows for the maintenance of the Common Travel Area, whilst protecting the integrity of our immigration system and which protects our strong ties with Ireland.

5. Controlling immigration – We will have control over the number of EU nationals coming to the UK.

6. Securing rights for EU nationals in the UK, and UK nationals in the EU – We want to secure the status of EU citizens who are already living in the UK, and that of UK nationals in other Member States, as early as we can.

7. Protecting workers’ rights – We will protect and enhance existing workers’ rights.

8. Ensuring free trade with European markets – We will forge a new strategic partnership with the EU, including a wide reaching, bold and ambitious free trade agreement, and will seek a mutually beneficial new customs agreement with the EU.

9. Securing new trade agreements with other countries – We will forge ambitious free trade relationships across the world.

10. Ensuring the UK remains the best place for science and innovation – We will remain at the vanguard of science and innovation and will seek continued close collaboration with our European partners.

11. Cooperating in the fight against crime and terrorism – We will continue to work with the EU to preserve European security, to fight terrorism, and to uphold justice across Europe.

12. Delivering a smooth, orderly exit from the EU – We will seek a phased process of implementation, in which both the UK and the EU institutions and the remaining EU Member States prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us.

After reading it through, the abiding impression it creates is that it has identified the key issues we will face in leaving the EU and also sets out in very broad terms what the Government would like a post-Brexit UK to look like. What is missing is the detail, including how we will arrive at the end point.

To take one subject which will be familiar to readers of this website – fishing.  All the White Paper tells us is that “it is in both our interests to reach a mutually beneficial deal that works for the UK and the EU’s fishing communities. Following EU exit, we will want to ensure a sustainable and profitable seafood sector and deliver a cleaner, healthier and more productive marine environment.” There is no detail regarding what is to supersede the Common Fisheries Policy, even though there would be huge problems if it were  repatriated into UK Law.

For instance, Regulation 1380/2013, the most important fisheries regulation, contains numerous mention of “union waters”. On leaving the EU, the waters up to 200 nautical miles from our shoreline (or the median point where we are less than 400 miles from another country’s coasts) will no longer be union waters, so a lot of re-writing would be necessary. Why bother, however, when the CFP and its quota system is so seriously flawed?  We can but hope that by the time negotiations get under way, the Government realises the importance of excluding fisheries legislation from any large-scale repatriation of the EU Acquis into UK law.

The White Paper raises the issue of the EU customs union and our future relationship with it. The Government has been very enthusiastic about wanting to make the most of our freedom to strike our own trade deals but there is very little detail about how it proposes to maintain trade with the EU. “There are a number of options for any new customs arrangement, including a completely new agreement, or for the UK to remain a signatory to some of the elements of the existing arrangements.”

The positive assessment of the UK’s involvement in Ukraine (under Section 11) does not make for happy reading, sadly. Now we are on the way out, it is time to leave the EU to its own empire building and to join President Trump in seeking rapprochement with Russia rather than than continuing foolishly and unnecessarily to antagonise Moscow.

Of course, this white paper has been produced to satisfy demands by MPs to be given some idea about the Government’s Brexit plans. The government has a bit of a tightrope to walk. MPs understandably don’t want to be left in the dark but at the same time, there are good reason for Mrs May and her team keeping their cards close to their chest so as not to give too much away to the people from the EU with whom they must negotiate.

On balance, however, anyone who has been listening to the recent speeches by Mrs May and her Brexit team would have not found much in this document which they did not already know. It defines the important tasks which needs to be addressed and paints a very positive vision of what life will be like once we’re out. How the Government will take us to this point is another matter and we hope more will be revealed soon as it cannot afford to get this wrong.

 

First steps on a long road

Yesterday, the  House of Commons voted by 498 votes to 114 to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This was the first vote and the second reading of the European Union (Notification of withdrawal) Bill, which was published last week.  According to the Parliament website,  the Bill is provisionally scheduled to be considered in a Committee of the whole House on Monday 6th, Tuesday 7th, and Wednesday 8th February with the Report Stage and Third Reading of the Bill provisionally scheduled to take place on Wednesday 8th February 2017. Mrs May’s objective is to be ready to trigger Article 50 on 9th March, which allows a couple of weeks to elapse before the planned celebrations in Italy to mark 60 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

Italy has made it quite clear that triggering Article 50 too close to March 25th’s festivities would be regarded as a “hostile act“. This is a valid point. We may delighted to be breaking away from the EU project but what is the point of unnecessarily antagonising the EU-27 at the start of what is going to be a very challenging period for our diplomats, ministers and civil servants? The decision to go for 9th March therefore  is a very wise one.

Consequentially, the Bill has just over five weeks to clear all the hurdles – scrutiny by the House of Lords and a further vote.  The Europhile majority in the Upper Chamber  has been highlighted on our website and elsewhere on many occasions, but statements last month by Lord Fowler and Lord Blunkett that it was not Peers’ job to go against the will of the people offer some reassurance.

Furthermore, a precedent has been set in the Commons which would be very hard for their Noble Lordships to ignore.  Last night, 346 MPs who had supported remaining in the EU during the referendum campaign, including the Prime Minister herself,  voted in favour of triggering Article 50.  Some did so reluctantly, but David Davis’ challenge to his fellow-MPs was not easy to ignore:- “Do we trust the people or not?”

At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves that were it not for the legal ambiguity of David Cameron’s original bill, Parliament would not need to go through all this. The infamous booklet, produced at the taxpayers’ expense, which encouraged us to vote to remain, couldn’t have been clearer:- “This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide” but our judges decided that an unequivocal promise wasn’t good enough.

Even so, yesterday saw a momentous event which many Brexit supporters never thought would happen – a predominantly remain-supporting House of Commons voted to begin a process that will restore our independence. Some did so enthusiastically, especially the pro-leave minority like Owen Paterson who said: “This is irrevocable – we have voted to take back control” or Boris Johnson, who correctly claimed that “History had been made”. Others like remainer Nicky Morgan were far more reluctant, on the one hand recognising that the result had to be respected but adding that she would “rather not have been in the situation of having this debate and having to pass this legislation.”

Still, at least she did what her party leader and her country mandated her to do so, albeit grudgingly. The same cannot be said of 114 of her parliamentary colleagues. You can study the roll of dishonour here, but in summary, they comprise largely SNP and Labour MPs along with, among others, seven out of the nine Lib Dems, the solitary Green and, notoriously, Ken Clarke, who was the only Conservative MP to rebel against the Government.

We will be keeping tabs on the voting records of MPs during subsequent Article 50-related divisions in the House of Commons, but as far as yesterday was concerned, the prize for the most absurd comment goes to Lib Dem leader Tim Farron who likened his party’s opposition to Brexit with its previous stance against the Iraq war. “I take courage and comfort from that example because I’m as certain as I can be we’re in the same kind of place now”, he said, adding “We think democracy does not involve lying down and giving up. If you believe in democracy you’ve got to carry on fighting for it.” Perhaps some one should point out to him that June 23rd’s vote was, in fact, democracy in action. Unfortunately for Mr Farron, the result didn’t turn out the way he hoped and he sadly shows no sign of growing up and getting over it.

On a more serious note – after all, does anyone really take Mr Farron seriously? –  the Government has just published a white paper setting out HOW it plans to take us out of the EU.  This document offers little more than the broad outlines, which we will review and comment on in due course. There is no doubt that it is going to be a challenging process and we can but hope that we do end up with a Brexit deal that will work – for business, for our fishermen and farmers as well as for ordinary people.

But yesterday was significant. In spite of there being further votes in Parliament ahead and legal challenges lurking in the background, our MPs took the first historic steps yesterday on the long road to freedom.  Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor is therefore correct her analysis that yesterday’s vote marked “the point of no return“. The government therefore has to get Brexit right. Failure is not an option.

Parliament publishes European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill

As we mentioned earlier this week, the Government had anticipated the result of the appeal to the Supreme Court and had an enabling bill all ready to go.

It has now been published – brief and to the point. You can read it here although as there isn’t much of it, the salient paragraphs are set out below:-

A BILL TO

Confer power on the Prime Minister to notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.

BE IT ENACTED
by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:—
1 Power to notify withdrawal from the EU
(1) The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.
(2)This section has effect despite any provision made by or under the European
Communities Act 1972 or any other enactment.
2 Short title
This Act may be cited as the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act, 2017

We can but hope its passage through Parliament will be a smooth one, especially as a number of erstwhile Conservative Remain supporters have expressed their intention to support it and that several remain-supporting peers such as Lord Blunkett have  said that it would be inappropriate for the Upper Chamber to frustrate the will of the people. Furthermore, the appearance of this bill underlines Mrs May’s determination not to allow Brexit to be derailed by the remainiacs. For this we must be thankful.