Key members of Theresa May’s Cabinet are gathered at Chequers to thrash out the Government’s vision for Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
But what are the issues dividing ultra-Brexiteers like Boris Johnson from those like Philip Hammond who are more cautious about cutting ties with Britain’s European partners?
This is the key issue. Keen Brexiteers say there is no point the UK leaving the EU if it cannot draw up its own rules on things like food standards, environmental protections, data privacy and workplace conditions. They want freedom to diverge so the UK can be flexible in negotiations on new trade deals with countries like the US or China. “Soft” Brexiteers warn tearing up the Brussels rulebook will make it more difficult for British companies to trade with the remaining EU27, who will insist that imports must meet their standards. Theresa May has come up with a “three baskets” plan, under which regulations would be divided into three types, those where the UK is happy to stick with EU-wide rules; those where we want to draw up our own rules to achieve the same results; and those where we want to suit ourselves. The European Commission said on Wednesday this approach was “incompatible” with the single market.
– Northern Ireland
The agreement reached in December fudged the issue of the UK’s land border with the Republic of Ireland. Both Britain and Brussels insist they want to keep it open, but the agreement was vague about how. The UK hopes to find a technological fix to avoid the need for customs checks, but failing that the agreement says there will have to be “full alignment” with EU rules. Critics say that if Northern Ireland is aligned with the EU, the rest of the UK will have to be too, to avoid creating a customs border down the middle of the Irish Sea.
– Customs Union
The Cabinet is agreed that Britain cannot stay inside the EU’s customs union, as this would prevent it from negotiating its own independent trade deals. The argument now is over whether it would be acceptable to be in “a customs union” with different rules, not favoured by the PM, or go for one of the Brexit Department’s preferred options of a “customs partnership” or a “highly-streamlined customs arrangement”.
There was alarm among Brexiteers at a document released on Wednesday which suggested that Britain was ready a “transition period” of indefinite length, during which the UK will be tied by single market and customs union rules without have any say over them. However Downing Street insisted that the period will be “time-limited” and a precise date for its ending will be named in due course. Hardline Brexiteers want that date nailed down as soon as possible, to head off any danger of drift.
Theresa May made taking back control of UK laws one of her earliest red lines in negotiations, telling the Conservative conference in 2016: “We are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.” However, since then, all sorts of issues have arisen where soft Brexiteers think some ECJ oversight would make life easier for the UK. Could prove a sticking-point if purists insist on removing all of the Luxembourg court’s influence over British life.
– Citizens’ Rights
London and Brussels are still at loggerheads over whether EU citizens who arrive in the UK between the March 2019 date of Brexit and end of the transition period should gain permanent rights to stay.