Boris Johnson is set to make a major speech on Brexit this week in an attempt to reshape the tone of the UK’s departure from the European Union.
It is believed he is the first of several Cabinet ministers to give speeches on Brexit in the next few weeks, ahead of a Government ‘away day’ on the issue.
While sweeping statements promoting the bright future which awaits the UK outside the EU have their uses, it would perhaps be better if the Government started filling in some of the very sizeable gaps in exactly what happens after Brexit.
Members of HuffPost Politics UK’s Brexit Briefing Facebook group put forward some questions of their own, and here are the key issues raised.
1) Will the UK get more trade by leaving the customs union than remaining in it? Please show your working.
In January, the Director General of the Confederation of British Industry made a very simple challenge to the Government: “There may come a day when the opportunity to fully set independent trade policies outweighs the value of a customs union with the EU…but that day hasn’t yet arrived.”
In Boris Johnson’s response on Twitter, he said leaving the customs union would give the UK “new export opportunities”, but failed to properly set out why leaving the trading bloc now was preferable to staying in.
Indeed, during a trip to China earlier this month, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox admitted trade to the Far East economic powerhouse could be increased while the UK is part of customs union.
So why is the UK leaving the customs union, and potentially erecting trade barriers with 27 countries? The theoretical reason has been set out, but it seems the CBI’s point that trade outside the union will not replace that from inside has yet to be addressed.
Brexiteers such as Steve Baker like to repeat the claim, made by the European Commission in 2013, that 90% of world economic growth in the next 15 years is set to come from outside the EU – but quoting forecasts is not enough to win people over - just ask the Stronger In campaign.
The Government needs to explain why it is better to be out of the customs union, and how it will exploit those opportunities.
2) How will the Ireland/Northern Ireland border work in practice?
The UK and the EU have both made it clear that when it comes to the Northern Ireland/Ireland border, there needs to be “flexible and imaginative” solutions.
It is a phrase peppered throughout the Government’s Northern Ireland and Ireland position paper, published last summer, but since then there has been little sign of progress.
The UK and Irish governments are clear they don’t want to see a hard border return, and Britain has committed to no physical infrastructure being introduced on the island.
But with the UK set to leave the Single Market and customs union, how can countries with separate trade arrangements not have border checks?
In order to move onto phase 2 of Brexit negotiations in December, the UK agreed to maintain “full alignment” with rules which “now or in the future” support the all-island economy and are in keeping with the Good Friday agreement.
While David Davis gives the impression this will only impact a handful of sectors, there are actually more than 140 aspects of the economy, public services and the environment where there is currently cooperation on a North-South basis.
Will there be mass alignment on regulations which the UK no longer has a say over? Will there have to be some infrastructure installed in order to carry out customs checks? Will the border become a “smugglers charter” after Brexit, as one Irish politician claimed?
More information on this crucial issue is needed.
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3) What trade deal do we want with the EU? Give specifics, not soundbites.
Theresa May likes to talk about a “deep and special partnership” with the EU, but it is unclear exactly what the means.
She is very clear about what the trade deal will not be - Canada or Norway - but detail is lacking on what a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU will look like.
Will the financial sector still abide by EU rules in order to access the markets? Will the UK have to pay in to get that access? Are there any other sectors where the UK will follow EU rules? Will the UK allow European vessels to fish in its waters, or will the territory be offered up as part of the negotiations?
4) What if those leaked forecasts are even a bit true? What’s the plan to help the regions affected?
Civil service forecasts passed to Sky News last week showed a “no deal” Brexit will hold back the North East of England’s economy by 16%, with the rest of the north, the Midlands and Northern Ireland all affected by the UK quitting the EU.
Even if the UK was to strike a deal with Brussels, the North East could still take an 11% hit.
The Brexiteers place no great stock in forecasts. Brexit Minister Steve Baker even told MPs they are “always wrong” as he dismissed claims the UK’s economic growth would be hit outside of the EU.
But what if the reports are right? Perhaps not down to the final decimal place of the predicted economic hit, but broadly in the right direction? Does the Government have a plan to protect these areas from a downturn?
That argument can be extended to industries and sectors set to lose out on funding from the EU – including research and agriculture. Will these payments be protected by the Government? The electorate was told the UK would be £350million a week better off after Brexit – how is that money going to divvied up?
5) What immigration system will the UK have after Brexit?
It was one of the most high-profile issues of the EU referendum campaign, but since the vote, seems to have dropped down the political agenda.
The Government issued a paper on immigration last year, detailing how people who have lived in the UK for more than five years can get the right to remain.
But other than that, it is still unclear immigration policy the UK will operate after Brexit. Theresa May has ruled out an Australian-style points based system – which was backed by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage ahead of the referendum - but there has been precious little talk of what she does want.
Will there be a quota system, visas, some form of free movement?
This most controversial of issues deserves a considered solution, which is why the public will probably have to wait for the conclusions of the Migration Advisory Committee. The body was set up by Home Secretary Amber Rudd in July 2017, and is set to report back in September - seven months before the scheduled date for Britain’s formal departure from the EU in March 2019.
That’s cutting it close.
6) Is there actually time to do all this?
The clock is ticking. It has been nearly a year since Article 50 was triggered, and there are still numerous issues to be resolved.
Does the Government even have the people-power to reach all the necessary conclusions and then implement them? A new immigration system, trade negotiations, and financial allocations all take a lot of bureaucracy – something which leaving the EU was supposed to free the UK from.
A report from the Public Accounts Committee published at the beginning of February said urgent action is needed to recruit staff, streamline decision-making and cut back on other commitments.
Is there going to be a mass recruitment drive of civil servants? Will the Home Office be able process residency applications from 3million EU citizens living in the UK within two years after Brexit? Does the implementation period need to be longer than two years?