There are certainly reasons to be appreciative of being British today; from those on Portsmouth dockside welcoming home the HMS Queen Elizabeth Carrier to those wading through the latest data from the ONS showing, for instance, that employment rate (75.1%) has hit its highest on record and unemployment (4.4%) is at its lowest in 42 years. But less so in regards to the first in a series of detailed Brexit position papers setting out the ‘Government’s vision… to build a new, deep and special partnership with the European Union’. Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian MP, current MEP, EU Brexit negotiator and author of ‘Europe's Last Chance’, sums up the central stance of the papers as ‘a fantasy’.
The Government’s goal is for the 'freest and most frictionless' trade possible but the other 27 European Union states remain unanimous that frictionless trade is impossible outside the Single Market and Customs Union, and this opposition is likely to apply even against temporary customs deals such as those dreamed up in the ‘Future Customs Arrangements’ paper. Moreover it’s clear that they all couldn’t care less about our preferred customs arrangements until an agreement on citizens’ rights and settling dues.
Alongside a foretaste of upcoming papers on trade policy and the complicated border issues with Northern Ireland the core tenants of this latest paper outline two optimistic plans for future customs relationships. The first possibility (if you can call it that) is ‘A highly streamlined customs arrangement between the UK and the EU… leaving few additional requirements… [to] continue some of the existing arrangements… [to] reduce and remove barriers to trade… and implement technology-based solutions.’ The alternative is ‘A new customs partnership with the EU… in a way that removes the need for a UK-EU customs border… This is of course unprecedented as an approach and could be challenging to implement’. This very last admission is about the only certain statement in the entire paper. Shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer put it well saying, ‘The cabinet remain split on key issues and cannot decide between two very different but equally unachievable options.’
It’s now 20 weeks since Article 50 was triggered meaning the UK has already used up a fifth of its negotiating runway. Yet no one, even on HM Government’s side, would dream of saying we are 20% up to speed for a successful departure from the EU or 20% of the way towards a successful agreement. Cartoons of David Davis having and eating cake abound on the interweb as the chasm between UK and EU negotiating positions becomes increasingly clear; thought by the time he’s finished one wonders whether there will be any cake at all.