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2 February 2017updated 03 Feb 2017 10:57am

Britain’s plan for Brexit: bankers first, £350m for the NHS never

The deal works for the British and European economies. It may prove hard to deliver politically.

By Stephen Bush

The government has published its white paper on its plan for Brexit. It largely confirms what we already knew: we are committed to leaving the single market, escaping the reach of the European Court of Justice and ending the free movement of people.

We hope to retain our financial services’ easy access into Europe and to continue to participate in science and research projects.  And here’s what we hope to negotiate with: security and money.

On security, the government wants to continue to be an active participant in Europol and in the defence of the European periphery. That means that Conservative civil libertarians are bound for disappointment, as the white paper implicitly assumes our continuing participation in the European Arrest Warrant and a variety of Europe-wide security projects.

From Britain’s perspective, the internal security of the European Union is win-win. The threats that Europol faces – organised crime, trafficking and international terrorism – don’t respect borders and can’t be left merely by extracting ourselves from the European Union. Crucially, there is no country in the European Union that can easily replace the British commitment so there is significant leverage here.

As far as the European periphery is concerned, that’s less of an easy trade-off. Whoever emerges from the French presidential election will be much more dovish towards Russia than François Hollande. After the election of Donald Trump, Britain is far and away the most vocal critic of Russia left worldwide, and interposing ourselves between Russia and the Baltics might help secure a better Brexit deal but it’s certainly a high stakes gambit.

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The other pressure point is money. Britain’s exit from the European Union creates a financial headache for the EU27 and that Britain’s economy is still growing healthily means that continued large payments into the European Union are very doable from a British perspective. What that will likely involve is payments that are notionally earmarked for our continuing participation in security and research-based programmes but are well above what we pay for those programmes now.

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What might that deal look like? It would mean a jointly-agreed regulatory framework for financial services, British security services in Europol and British soldiers on the Russian border. It would likely also make travelling to and working on the Continent trickier. But you can see the outlines of a deal that is doable for both sides and works for the British economy.

The big question of course is whether Downing Street has the ability domestically to sell an agreement that is geared towards the banks and involves continued large payments into the European Union. 

And then there’s Northern Ireland, and the whole question of how to maintain an open border between the North and the South. The government’s position is basically the same as Brussels and the Republic of Ireland’s: that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The difficulty – and the fear is that this becomes symbolic of the entirety of the Brexit talks – is that just because there is agreement on the need for a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found.