LONDON — British officials have reportedly ditched the “have cake and eat it” approach to Brexit negotiations amid a collective realisation that this sort of divorce deal is not achievable.
Well-placed sources within government have told The Guardian newspaper that the Department for Exiting the EU (DexEU) now accepts that Britain must choose between privileged market access and political control in Brexit talks with the European Union.
This change in mood within government represents a clear departure from the early negotiating position adopted by Prime Minister Theresa May, which was based on Britain leaving the EU’s core institutions but retaining the benefits of the being part of them.
In her Lancaster House speech earlier this year, May suggested that Britain would be able to negotiate a Brexit deal based on full access to the European single market without concessions over immigration and payments to the EU.
The prime minister’s rhetoric echoed that of Brexiteers like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who in the run-up to last year’s in-out referendum said Britain would “have its cake and eat it” in exit negotiations with the 28-nation bloc.
This optimism has seemingly made way for a more realistic approach, with civil servants reportedly presenting government ministers with a binary choice:
- A deal based on preferential access to the EU single market but with clear compromises over issues like immigration and the role of European courts, similar to that of European Economic Area (EEA) nations like Norway.
- Or a deal based on “taking back control” of immigration and cutting all ties with European courts but with a much less lucrative trade relationship with the EU.
“We have a problem in that really there are only two viable options,” an official told the Guardian. “One is a high-access, low-control arrangement which looks a bit like the EEA. The other is a low-access, high-control arrangement where you eventually end up looking like Ceta [Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement] — a more classic free trade agreement, if you are lucky.”
A big problem for those within the Brexit department is that, although more palatable for business leaders and most MPs, a softer Brexit based on full participation in the single market would likely mean Britain having to accept the free movement of people. This would be a huge risk given how important the issue of immigration was with voters during the EU referendum campaign and continues to be to this day.
With this in mind, efforts to negotiate a “soft” Brexit will likelier be based on maintaining as close ties as possible with the EU’s customs union. The customs union means nations importing goods into the EU pay the same tariff regardless of which member states they are importing to, while EU member states all trade freely with one another.
It is unclear whether May’s most senior ministers are united by this change of approach to Brexit negotiations.
Last week Chancellor Philip Hammond and Brexit Secretary David Davis had a public disagreement over a key aspect of Brexit in how long a transitional phase ought to last. Hammond, one of the government’s more moderate voices, said Britain should be prepared to accept a transitional deal lasting four years, while Davis insisted it should last no longer than two.
Hammond also appeared to mock Johnson’s “have cake and eat it” claim during a speech in Germany last week. “A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece,” the chancellor told business leaders in Berlin.
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