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7 March 2017

What does the Brexit white paper say?

We read all 75 pages so you don't have to. 

By Ruby Lott-Lavigna

The uncertainty around Brexit has been one of the biggest criticisms thrown at the Tories since June’s vote. The opposition constantly criticised Prime Minister Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, stating that the damages would be vast – if they even knew what kind of deal we would be able to get.

Although David Davis, the secretary for Exiting the European Union, initially rejected the idea of a white paper, the government eventually announced the release of a document hoping to clear up confusion. But what does it actually say?

Although there are 75 pages of writing, the details are sparse mainly due to this disclaimer: “To enable the Government to achieve the best outcome in the negotiations, we will need to keep our positions closely held and will need at times to be careful about the commentary we make public.”


All laws will stay the same the day Article 50 is triggered, and it will be up to the government to decide what laws to keep and which to change. This is essentially the point of the Great Repeal Bill, which is an unpublished bill that will allow EU laws to be transposed to domestic laws until adequate changes are made. Opponents of the government fear it will use Henry VIII clauses to tinker with the laws after Brexit while avoiding proper parliamentary scrutiny. 

Workers’ rights will – theoretically – be protected. The white paper claims that “UK employment law already goes further than many of the standards set out in EU legislation” so a removal from the EU shouldn’t have any obvious negative impacts. An independent review of “employment practices in the modern economy is now underway”.

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Goodbye free movement. According to the government, controlling immigration and free movement of EU and UK citizens is mutually exclusive: “It is simply not possible to control immigration overall when there is unlimited free movement of people to the UK from the EU.”

The general stance on what this controlled immigration policy would look like is vague. The main point is immigration is good if controlled: “We will create an immigration system that allows us to control numbers and encourage the brightest and the best to come to this country, as part of a stable and prosperous future with the EU and our European partners.”

EU migrants and UK migrants

This all comes down to negotiations after triggering Article 50. However the white paper outlines ambitions to “secure the status of EU citizens who are already living in the UK, and that of UK nationals in other Member States.” It also notes that attempts at negotiations were made before the designated two year period, but “this has not proven possible”. For more details, check out this piece on the future of EU migrants.

Free trade

The government will not be looking to be part of the single market, but wants to “pursue instead a new strategic partnership with the EU”. That may mean taking aspects of the single market agreements to make the transition easier. The UK will not employ any already existing trade deal used by a different country (such a the Nordic model).

The UK will therefore be looking to increase trading with countries outside the EU, such as China and Brazil, which it says have “already expressed their interest in enhancing their trading relationships” with the UK. “The EU remains an important trading partner for the UK, but the importance of other markets outside the EU has been increasing in relative terms.”

Will we be still be paying money to the EU?

Yes, potentially. Although we won’t be paying a membership fee, there will still be programmes that we had signed up to before leaving that we committed to paying for, as well as future programmes. The paper states, “[t]here may be European programmes in which we might want to participate. If so, it is reasonable that we should make an appropriate contribution.”


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