What does Brexit mean? The answer is more complicated than you think

There's an intriguing question contained in the government's plans for Brexit. 

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What does Brexit mean? Don’t worry, that’s not a cue for an unfunny riff about Theresa May’s approach to media management.

The government has published its white paper and it tells us what we already knew: we’re out of the European Court of Justice, out of the single market, and looking for a banking treaty with some bits on rules of origin on the side. Our leverage? Defending the European border and our continued participation in Europol. Plus money. Thanks to the unexpected resilience of the British economy, the prospect of continuing to hit our Nato defence target and of paying money into the EU is not the struggle it might have been.

Because despite the PM’s one-liner about not wanting to “hold onto” bits of membership, it turns out we do, in fact, want to hold onto bits of our membership: largely on science and research. You can see the outlines of a deal that works for Britain and the EU27: one in which the City of London doesn’t really leave the European Union, we pay over the odds for participation in science and research to patch up the hole in the European finances that Brexit creates, and we will, of course, follow European regulation by default as that will remain our nearest market.

Is that Brexit? As regular listeners to our podcast know, as much as I’d dearly love to stay in the EEA, the arrangement, to my eyes, is a fix between the EU and the Norwegian political class to pretend they aren’t really in the EU. But because the pressing issue for Norway is fishing, and that is outside the competence of the EEA, it works, just about. If we have control over our immigration policy,  aren’t subject to the judgements of the ECJ, but we are paying, say £250m a week into the European Union, staffing Europol and banking regulations are set de jure in Brussels while the bulk of regulation is set there de facto, have we left?

That’s certainly an acceptable state of affairs for the bulk of people who voted in the referendum, Remain or Leave: border control but without a hefty price. It's an acceptable outcome to the EU27. But a lot will hinge on whether that’s acceptable for the Conservative Party in general and Theresa May in particular.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.