UK outlines softer Brexit plan – and minister resigns

The UK's Prime Minister and her cabinet discussed a 'new approach' to Brexit at her official country residence, Chequers

EU negotiators have given a cautious welcome to moves towards a softer Brexit outlined after last week’s cabinet meeting at the UK Prime Minister’s country residence Chequers.

The plans, to be firmed up in a white paper by this Thursday, call for the UK to remain in a ‘UK-EU free trade area’, with the UK following EU rules on industrial goods and agricultural produce, combined with a ‘facilitated customs arrangement’ aimed at a compromise between demands of both Brexiteers and the EU.

The latter would mean imported goods would be charged a UK rate of customs duty on entry (leaving the UK free to sign new trade deals) but they would be tracked and an EU rate would be collected for any goods passing through the UK on their way to the continent.

In an interview with the Sunday Times UK Prime Minister Theresa May said the EU should now “get serious” and adopt a less “rigid approach”; however the plans led to Brexit Minister David Davis resigning over what he saw as concessions that were going too far.

In a resignation letter Mr Davis said he thought the UK government was diverging from its previous commitment to leaving the EU’s single market and customs union and rejecting any control by the European court. Meanwhile some insiders said the proposals still risk being seen as ‘cherry-picking’ by the EU which has previously insisted the ‘four freedoms’ of the single market are indivisible.

The Chequers plan could mean the UK having to accept the authority of the European Court of Justice with regard to trade in goods and, while it rejects free movement of people which is disliked by many Brexiteers, it proposes a "mobility framework so that UK and EU citizens can continue to travel to each other’s territories and apply for study and work". In her reply to Mr Davis Mrs May stated that in agreeing to follow a ‘common rulebook’ the UK Parliament would still have to agree new rules, but not doing so would have consequences on market access, security cooperation and ‘the frictionless border’.

The Chequers plan also reiterates such objectives as sending no more ‘vast sums’ to the EU, leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, no ‘hard border’ between Ireland and Northern Ireland and maintaining cooperation on security.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier tweeted that the announcements were “to be welcomed” and he said he was looking forward to reading the white paper. “We will assess proposals to see if they are workable and realistic,” he said.

The European Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, said he read the statements from Chequers “with great interest”. However the “devil is in the detail,” he added, saying MEPs will consider the white paper carefully at a meeting on July 12.

Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the UK’s proposals “deserve detailed consideration” and their “new UK approach” means there is plenty of work ahead.

However the Guardian quoted a senior diplomat as having called the Chequers plans merely a “mélange of earlier proposals that were not really feasible”. The diplomat added that “a ghoulash gets better the more it is recooked, but I am not sure customs proposals share the same quality”.

The source thought however that the parties would still come to a deal – eventually. “Everybody wants an agreement and the UK needs an agreement more urgently than us. So I think in the end it will come to something. If it is not in October, then maybe in November or December,” the diplomat said.

Mr Barnier is expected to give an official reaction to the white paper on July 20.

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