27 Jun 2018

Brexit White Paper takes shape

Cabinet members who aren’t on the specialist sub-committee that’s supposed to be guiding Brexit negotiations got a sneak preview of the emerging Brexit policy yesterday just before full Cabinet.

The UK official leading the Brexit negotiations, Olly Robbins, introduced some slides. Beside him were Gavin Barwell, the PM’s Chief of Staff and the UK Representative to the EU, Tim Barrow. Ministers were told that after the European Council next week and factoring in Brussels summer holidays, there are now only  “six weeks left” of negotiating time before the October summit at which negotiations are meant to be concluded. Ministers at this briefing came away with a real sense that “time is running out,” one present told me.

They also came away with the impression that the document to be put in front of all ministers next week may well lay out “options” on how to deal with the issue of regulating British goods. But ministers are not necessarily being asked to choose between those options.

Olly Robbins, it seems, is attempting to get ministerial licence to pursue a series of approaches ranging from a Norway-style rule-taking approach to those with more sovereignty but less access to EU markets. There’s bound to be suspicion that only one of these approaches – the one outlining what is effectively a Norway style approach with the UK in the single market for manufactured goods and agricultural goods –  is the one the EU27 would be most likely to engage with. The other more distant relationships to EU institutions proposed may be approved as negotiating lines to pursue but might be political window dressing for internal consumption and could die a very early death at the Brussels negotiating table.

The document currently runs at comfortably over 100 pages though will probably get subbed down. Some chapters have been through seven or eight redrafts. It is expected to pronounce on which of the preferred solutions to the Customs Union issue the government wants to pursue though the draft doesn’t yet choose between the Prime Minister’s “Customs Partnership” and the Brexit Secretary’s “Max Fac.” It could also talk about where the UK sees the future relationship in the medium to longer term, which could prove a tricky section to draft given the range of opinions in Cabinet on that.

Ministers on the S and N (Strategy and Negotiating Committee) who used to think they were in charge of Brexit policy now mutter that this body seems to have been sidelined. One former Cabinet Minister said “the maths doesn’t suits Theresa any more” on this committee. The balance of power turned in May, and Mrs May didn’t need Boris Johnson saying “it’s 6-5, 6-5, let’s have a vote” to tell her that.

One Whitehall source said S and N Committee members have been getting direct briefings in one-to-one chats with David Davis and others. But there are no plans yet to call a meeting of that committee before the White Paper is signed off at Cabinet meeting on Friday 6th July and one Whitehall source said it looked “fairly unlikely.” Another said “they always bounce us anyway,” a reference to the late appearance of papers just before meetings giving little time for consideration (or caucusing).

When Theresa May addresses the  EU27 in Brussels tomorrow she will insist there has been progress in negotiations but she’s acutely aware that time is now short. The U.K. will be reprimanded by the EU27 for reckless foot-dragging but little more (the EU has plenty of other items on the agenda starting with migration and does not want to label Brexit a crisis right now and add to the bulging file).

The focus will  immediately turn to the White Paper and the degree to which Theresa May is ready to stamp her authority on the Cabinet. Number 10 is acutely aware that some ministers may find this too much to swallow. Whitehall sources think that though the Foreign Secretary is the most likely to quit he is by no means a certainty to do that. “He sees himself as the grit in the oyster,” one Whitehall source said, and the message will be “he needs to stay in there” making sure his kind of view is heard.

David Davis clearly worried No. 10 earlier this month that he might just quit. Could he get there again? Could others in the next ministerial rank walk out? Which walkouts are survivable? At what level do they damage the Prime Minister beyond repair?

There are many more unknowns in this whole process and next week will be a high wire act. But one other unknown in this process is how the EU27 will respond to the long-awaited unveiling of the UK government’s negotiating position. Based on public pronouncements from Brussels, you’d think it would be turned down flat. Much effort will happen straight after the European Council to try to make sure that doesn’t happen. Theresa May and others will talk directly to EU leaders. The message is: please pause, don’t dismiss out of hand, think what could happen if you turn this down outright, ponder the alternatives … and please engage with our ideas.

But the EU Commission has shown little inclination to veer wildly off the script it has been given by the EU27 in their negotiating guidelines. It doesn’t have a remit to do that and some, like Martin Selmayr, are instinctively resistant to the idea of bending long-established legal institutions out of shape to accommodate an awkward customer as it walks out the door. Individual leaders of the EU27 have devoted little time in a busy schedule to Brexit. So far they’ve been happy to delegate that to the negotiating team under Michel Barnier. Mrs May needs that to change.

Ask senior officials whether they are sure that engagement will happen and you sometimes encounter a pause. Ask if the hopes are based on un-minuted conversations which Olly Robbins recalls having with EU officials and they shift awkwardly before conceding that maybe that is rather the case.

But if Mr Robbins gets his way next week and the White Paper options as currently drafted pass, if he’s right too on the EU27 appetite for negotiation on this basis, then by the time the EU has engaged with the most Norway-like of the options in the White Paper we will already be sliding closer to the exit date. The scope for re-thinking the UK approach without moving the exit date will be limited. The chances of moving that date are unknowable and the risks, if you’re a Brexiteer, might alarm.

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