The White Paper
The long awaited Brexit White Paper was released yesterday. I had a few hours and started reading. I am used to reading complex documents, for example PhD theses. Some years ago I had the pleasure of being external examiner for two PhD theses at Durham and University College Dublin within a few weeks. The Durham thesis was 475 pages long and even by page 150, I still had no clue what the thesis was about. The Dublin one was under 100 pages and by page 4 it was obvious that it was worthy of a PhD. As for the viva the Durham one was turgid, lasted about 5 1/2 hours, and we had to eventually fail the student, but allowed him to resubmit after 6 months (when he eventually passed). The Dublin one, as expected, was a joy, 2 hours and unquestionably worthy of the award of a PhD.
And so to the Brexit White paper. Sadly this sits squarely in the former category, and I must confess I gave up reading after about half an hour. I felt life was too short. Fortunately Ian Dunt is made of sterner stuff and waded through the whole thing: If this is all the government has for its Brexit white paper, we’re in trouble
So that’s it. After two years the government has finally published a Brexit white paper. It runs to 104 pages but is full of so much muddled thinking, desperation and fantasy that they could have done it in five and saved us all a lot of time.
To jumble up the Brexit jargon, it is cakeism-minus. They have a cake, they have eaten it, some of it is still magically on the plate, and the rest is being vomited up on the floor.
On the Max-Fac section Ian writes
Quite quickly this descends into badly-written cyberpunk. “This could include exploring how machine learning and artificial intelligence could allow traders to automate the collection and submission of data required for customs declarations,” it says at one point, as if the civil servant writing it got bored and just thought they’d chuck in as much crazy nonsense as possible.
One area of particular interest to me was the Irish Backstop; this was mentioned in the 3 page summary after the Chequers meeting. The wording in the white paper however is identical apart from the “Belfast Agreement” being changed to the “Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement” – so nothing new. Agreement on the Backstop is needed before the withdrawal agreement is finalised.
This point was reinforced yesterday when the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group (BSG), chaired by Guy Verhofstadt, met and had an extensive exchange of views on the Chequers Statement of 6 July 2018, as well as on the White Paper that had just been released by the UK Government.
The BSG reiterated that negotiating a new relationship with the UK post-Brexit is conditional on an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU on the basis of a Withdrawal Agreement (WA). It reconfirmed the Parliament’s position expressed in its resolutions that it will not consent to a WA, including a transition period, without a credible “back stop” provision for the Northern Ireland/Ireland border to prevent a hard border and safeguard the integrity of the single market, faithfully reflecting the commitments entered into in the Joint Report of 8 December 2017. It urged the UK Government to clarify its positions on the “back stop” so that the WA can be finalised as quickly as possible.
At the time of writing (the morning of Friday 13th) the EU has not officially reacted. Sadly, even my own low expectations of the White Paper were not met. The paper is a true dogs dinner and will please nobody. I am keeping an eye on the ever excellent Prof Chris Grey’s BrexitBlog and of course on an official reaction from Barnier and his team. There is no question, in my opinion, that the document will be totally unacceptable to the EU, and may not even be accepted as a starting point for negotiation at this late stage.
An initial reaction from the trade expert David Henig is a good summary (ed: you will need to click on the tweet to open up the thread):
Ok, here we go with the White Paper thread. Overall impression, kid in the first year of senior school applying to join the sixth form. Trying to understand what that means and not really succeeding. 1/ https://t.co/1MMBKns16n
— David Henig (@DavidHenigUK) July 12, 2018
As the White Paper offers very little new it is unlikely Chris Grey’s opinion will change from his assessment after the Chequers meeting. Grey states in
May’s pain with no gain crisis leaves Brexit snookered:
The Brexit that no one wants
The other main consequence of what has happened is that, rather extraordinarily, pretty much every one, regardless of where they are on the Brexit spectrum, is now unhappy. The hard Brexiters see it slipping away, the soft (EEA/EFTA) Brexiters are not getting their version of it, the remainers are still stuck with it, and those that might be called ‘pragmatists’, who just want some kind of workable solution, haven’t been offered it. Brexit in its nature is divisive, but it’s quite an achievement to have alienated every shade of opinion.
Worse than that, wherever people are on the spectrum, there’s no obvious route to achieving what they want. For various reasons – time, political numbers, party political structures – there are almost insuperable barriers to getting to hard Brexit, to soft Brexit or to remain. All of these outcomes are still possible, but each of them is currently snookered.
Added to this already inflammatory mixture are Trump’s comments re Brexit, a trade deals with the US, and lavish praise for Boris Johnson in an interview with the Sun. I’m sure Johnson will be pleased with Trump’s assessment that he is prime minister material. Ian Dunt takes a different view. This was lavishly praised by Jacob Rees-Mogg on the today program and is further fuel for the ERG.
We are no further forward. A few days ago I put forward 4 possible outcomes. The probability of no deal seems however to have increased. Advice now includes stockpiling of tinned food and barges in the Irish Sea full of diesel generators to power Northern Ireland because unless a deal is done, on the single island of Ireland electricity market, NI could run out of electricity.
Some time ago I wrote about the The Sicilianisation of Britain where the worst aspects of Northern Irish politics seem to have come to the UK: Whataboutery, Siloing and Confirmation Bias and Zero Sum Game Mentality. Rather than British politics coming to NI the opposite seems to have happened.
Matthew O’Toole, who was Chief Press officer for Europe and Economic affairs at no 10 during the time of the Referendum, and who is from NI, has very similar concerns. He discussed these in an interview with Naomi O’Leary in the Irish Passport The Invisible War (about 50 mins in) and this is well worth listening to.
Sadly, but perhaps understandably, it seems the pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit tribes are not coming together – in England at least. If anything polarisation is becoming more extreme. At least the politics of Northern Ireland mean that you know what you are getting. By contrast the poison of Brexit means that far from uniting the country it has become more divided than at any time since the English civil war. One has to hope the outcome will be more peaceful.