We now have six position papers from the government, some of which are actually quite good. The enforcement and dispute resolution one in particular is very reasonable, and perhaps gives us some hope that the government is aware of the possibilities, putting particular emphasis on the enormously sensible strategy of re-joining EFTA.
The other papers we had last week were on specific issues and did not contain anything particularly controversial. Interestingly, 4 of the 6 papers we've seen are named "Future Relationship Papers" rather than position papers. They read like a menu of options and possible solutions. showing at least that our options are being explored. They will do little however, to actually assist during the upcoming third round of negotiations. EU officials are having to constantly reiterate their position that there must be "sufficient"progress on citizen's rights, the divorce bill and the Irish border issue, before talks can progress to things like trade. The issue of the Irish border is impossible to solve without us understanding the future customs and trade relationships, and even then, many argue it is impossible to solve at all. The 57-odd policy areas that must be negotiated are interlinked such that a conclusion on any one of them will be contingent on the progress of at least some of the others. Still, the EU wants to talk about the divorce bill, citizen's rights and the Irish border, and we are trying to force the issue on customs and trade. The fact that both sides are in disagreement as to how this needs to be done, is, as others have pointed out, very likely to lead to a stalemate, and yet the clock ticks on. The papers the government has released thus far, whilst specific on the objectives, only throw out possibilities rather than positions, and as we have seen by the reactions to the customs and Irish border papers in particular, the possibilities do not hold up to much scrutiny.
As we would expect, the response from Brussels, whilst appreciative of the effort, has not been very positive. One diplomat called the customs proposals a "fairy tale", Juncker said that he's read all of them and none were satisfactory, and Barnier said: “To be honest, I’m concerned. Time passes quickly, we need UK positions on all separation issues. This is necessary to make sufficient progress. We must start negotiating seriously. We need UK papers that are clear in order to have constructive negotiations, and the sooner we remove the ambiguity, the sooner we will be in a position to discuss the future relationship and a transitional period.” With the third round of negotiations about to begin, and the first public update due this Thursday, these comments do not inspire a great deal of confidence.
Here I once again will remind everybody that parking ourselves in the EEA under EFTA jurisdiction would remove us from the time constraint, solve most of these issues at least for the time being, and most importantly, would remove us from the EU. We are facing a gargantuan undertaking and forcing ourselves into a progressively weaker position for no reason whatsoever, with a solution that would deliver an exit from the EU and the commitment to ever closer union right under our noses.
In other news, Labour's Keir Starmer has penned a piece laying out the party's new position that they would keep us in the single market and "a customs union" with the EU for a transitional period in order to avoid a cliff-edge. This goes one step further than the Tories' current line, but there is no detail whatsoever about how Labour would seek to achieve such a thing, certainly no mention of the EEA or EFTA. This does throw up the possibility of a parliamentary showdown though, if this is truly a position upon which Labour MPs will rally behind. It is still the position of the government that at some point the Brexit deal will go up for a vote, and there is also the lack of clarity around whether we must formally indicate our intention to leave the EEA. Whilst we are yet to hear from Corbyn or McDonnell on this issue, who have both said previously that SM membership is out of the question, this is potentially another spanner in the works for those seeing a Brexit on the harder side of things.
As I mentioned, we should ghave an update on the progress of the third round of negotiations on Thursday. In the meantime please do check out our podcast (or here for non-iTunes people). It's sounding better than ever and is the only place the really detailed discussions around these issues can be done justice.