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Brexit White Paper: what you need to know

The Government has published its plans for exiting the European Union in a lengthy white paper titled "The United Kingdom's exit from and new partnership with the European Union".

The Government has published its plans for exiting the European Union in a lengthy white paper titled "The United Kingdom's exit from and new partnership with the European Union".

The white paper contains little in the way of new information for anyone who was already familiar with the 12 objectives set out by the Prime Minister in her speech given at Lancaster House last month. The white paper builds on each of those 12 objectives but, unsurprisingly, contains little detail on how those objectives would be realised. A number of the objectives are expressed in aspirational language and require further definition and others have the appearance of being "pro cake and eating it".  The 12 objectives are:

  1. Providing legal certainty and clarity: The Government will introduce a Great Repeal Bill which if enacted would have the effect of repealing the European Communities Act 1972 and converting the body of existing EU law into domestic law following the UK's exit from the EU. According to the EU's Eur-lex website there are nearly 19,000 legislative acts in force many of which have direct application in the UK and would fall away without the Great Repeal Bill providing for their continuation. It will not be sufficient to simply convert directly applicable EU law into UK law, each EU law will need to be reviewed in the context of the withdrawal agreement and may require amendment. This will be a significant task for the civil service.

  2. Taking control of our own laws: The Government proposes to remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which would be a consequence of the UK withdrawing from the Single Market. The white paper recognises that one or more new dispute resolution forums would be required for resolving cross-border disputes (e.g. trade disputes) and identifies several potential options without expressing a preference for any one option.

  3. Strengthening the Union: The Government will pursue a new relationship with the EU which works for the United Kingdom as a whole, which is easier said than done.

  4. Protecting the UK's relationship with Ireland and maintaining the Common Travel Area: The Government will seek to maintain a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by protecting the Common Travel Area, but the Government's expressed intention to leave the Customs Union throws that arrangement into question and no solutions are offered.

  5. Controlling immigration: The Government wants an immigration system which allows it to control the numbers of people who come to the UK from the EU which would bring an end to the Free Movement Directive, although any new immigration system is likely to be phased in to give businesses time to plan and prepare for the new arrangements.

  6. Securing rights for EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU: The Government states that it wishes to secure the rights of the 2.8 million EU nationals living in the UK and 1 million UK nationals living in the EU early in the negotiation process.

  7. Protecting workers rights: The white paper notes that UK employment law already goes further than many standards set out in EU law and explains that it is the Government's intention to protect and enhance the rights people have at work, but does not go into specifics.

  8. Ensuring free trade with EU market: The Government intends to exit from the Single Market and conclude a free trade agreement to ensure the "most frictionless trade" possible in goods and services with the EU. The white paper notes that such a trade deal could take in elements of the Single Market (without providing specifics) on the basis that there are presently no tariffs and common regulations with the EU. The Government will also seek to conclude a customs agreement, which could preserve the current tariff-free trade in goods completely or in respect of certain goods.

  9. Securing new trade agreements with other countries: Although the UK is not permitted to enter into free trade agreements until after it has exited from the EU, the Government will pursue free trade agreements with other countries during the withdrawal negotiations with a view to achieving continuity in the UK's present trade and investment relationships with other countries. If the white paper is a guide the replacement free trade agreements are likely to be broadly comparable to the existing free trade agreements with the EU, which is sensible given the number of free trade agreements the UK would need to negotiate and agree within the next two years, but it does suggest that the UK's relationships with its trading partners is unlikely to change materially any time soon.

  10. Ensuring the UK remains the best place for science and innovation: The white paper notes the UK's involvement in many EU science and research programmes and states that the Government's preference is for the UK to collaborate with the EU on space, science, research and technology initiatives after the UK exists from the EU and where it does so the UK would likely make payments to the EU to continue its participation in those programmes.

  11. Cooperating in the fight against crime and terrorism: The Government will seek an outcome which commits the EU and the UK to continue to cooperate in the fight against crime and terrorism.

  12. Delivering a smooth and orderly exit from the EU: The Government has committed to starting the formal process of leaving the EU by invoking Article 50 no later than the end of March this year. This means that the Treaties of the EU would cease to apply to the UK from the earlier of date the withdrawal agreement enters into force or two years from the date of the Article 50 notice. To minimise disruption associated with the UK's withdrawal from the EU, the Government has indicated that any new arrangements would be phased in.

The white paper raises as many questions as it answers due to the lack of detail.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the white paper is how much of the current EU arrangements (e.g. trade, customs arrangements and participation in EU science and research programmes) could be preserved following Brexit. Even in respect of the proposed exit from the Single Market, the white paper states that the new arrangements may take in elements of the Single Market as it "makes no sense to start again from scratch when the UK and remaining Member States have adhered to the same rules for so many years".

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