Labour tables 170 Brexit questions for May
We know two things about Theresa May’s Brexit strategy: she will not give a running commentary on her negotiations but she will trigger Article 50 – and formal exit negotiations – by the end of March next year.
That was enough for her Conservative Party last week when she addressed her first party conference as Tory leader, but it has not satisfied the opposition.
Labour today has demanded answers to 170 questions on leaving the EU. One question for every day between now and 31 March – the deadline for triggering formal talks.
Of course the big issue is how to handle controlling immigration while also getting a good trade deal for the UK with its biggest trading partner, the European Union.
Mrs May has made it clear she will take action on immigration, but that has huge implications for how Britain trades with the EU.
Freedom of movement of people across the EU is one of the four pillars of the single market – the others being the free movement of goods, services, and capital.
So, how do you square that circle?
Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer have rather helpfully set out her various options:
“We are assuming that the Government has considered the following options for its continued post-Brexit trading relationship with the European Union:
(i) maintaining full membership of the Single Market, as at present;
(ii) negotiating UK terms for membership of the European Economic Area;
(iii) negotiating UK terms for membership of the European Free Trade Agreement;
(iv) negotiating a Customs union with the EU;
(v) negotiating a bespoke, bilateral free trade deal with the EU;
(vi) adopting a unilateral free trade policy with all trading partners; and
(vii) reverting to WTO rules for future trade arrangements, including the imposition of tariffs.”
So, got that? On to Question One.
:: 1) Which of the above options has the Government definitively ruled out, which does it still have under consideration, and which does it regard as its preferred option(s) for the negotiations?
That is going to take a lot longer than a day to answer, not least because the Government has not yet even hired all the civil servants it needs to do the work on the Brexit trading model.
Mrs May has been intentionally obtuse on this – unwilling to box herself in.
As she said at Prime Minister’s Questions today, she wants to seek the “maximum possible access” to the European market once it leaves the EU, while also being clear that Britain “should control the movement of people from the EU into the UK”.
Our continental partners call it – in the words of one diplomat – “having your cake and eating it” and some compromise will be inevitable.
One option would be reverting to World Trade Organisation rules and paying tariffs, or the UK could end up paying large sums of money into the EU to secure better trade deals in return for some control over immigration.
The Government has also hinted it might be willing to contemplate a shared regulatory framework with the EU, outside the European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisdiction – sovereignty issues – but accepting of most EU rules.
It could also look at going for membership of the EFTA (European Free Trade Association) bloc, which has its own court, situated next to the ECJ in Luxembourg.
Confused? You are meant to be, the options are complicated and varied. Labour devotes 16 of its questions to this very issue.
Let’s move on to immigration.
:: 2) Given that the Prime Minister has said continued free movement will not be part of any post-Brexit deal with the EU, and has also ruled out a points-based immigration system, what system does the Government now intend to introduce to manage migration from the EU to the UK?
Again, complicated. All Mrs May has said is that immigration must be controlled.
What does it mean for EU nationals currently living in the UK, can they stay?
And what does it mean for those sectors – the NHS, agriculture, food production – dependent on EU workers. Special permits for certain sectors?
Mrs May has refused to rule anything in or out (although suggestions that companies should publish lists of foreign workers in their businesses have been dropped).
::3) How does the Government plan to make up the shortfall in funding for those regions resulting from the loss of the European Development Fund and European Social Fund payments they would have received, into the 2020s and beyond?
There is a flow of money into the EU and back out.
Remember the Vote Leave campaign suggested the £350m a week that the Government pays into the EU could be spent on the NHS?
Do not forget the structural funding paid to different regions of the UK – with Cornwall and Wales big recipients of such money.
The EU provided £4.4bn to the UK (€5.7bn) in 2015, according to Treasury figures. Will the Government still pay that money out to the regions – will parts of the country lose out?
I have not even started on employment rights, consumer protections or reciprocal health cards so you can get treated in EU hospitals when you are on holiday or travelling across the continent.
It is a four-decade union, and it is going to be very, very complicated to unpick.
Don’t expect many answers on any of this in the next 170 days.