I’m sure I’m not the only one who regards the outcome of Theresa May’s Chequers away day for eleven cabinet members as yet another retreat from reality. After months of indecision, the ‘war cabinet’ has decided that after a transition period Brexit will mean ‘managed divergence.’ This is as fanciful as Mrs May’s mantra that post Brexit UK businesses will continue to enjoy ‘frictionless trade’ with the EU. As ever the announcement is devoid of details but managed divergence implies that on leaving the customs union and single market, the UK will still be subject to the EU’s rules and regulations but in the following years, governments will decide the areas where the UK will diverge from the EU. This is completely at odds with frictionless trade because unless UK rules and regulations are aligned with, and enforced by the EU, UK-EU trade will be subject to customs administration, checks and delays. In addition, this spells problems for Mrs May’s commitment to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
Who doubts that the true purpose of the Chequers meeting was a futile attempt to buy time in avoiding the Tory party tearing itself apart over Brexit? Soft Brexiters can hope that UK-EU rules and regulations will be aligned for several years or longer. Hard Brexiters – the zealots – can believe that sooner rather than later UK and EU rules and regulations will start to diverge. Mrs May had better make the most of this Tory truce. It will not last. It is naïve to expect that the EU would agree to a system where the UK converges when deemed to be in its interest, but diverges in those sectors in which it could gain competitive advantage with the EU. It amounts to cherry-picking, and the EU – not just Michel Barnier but also Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and many other EU leaders – has repeatedly stated that such an agreement is non-negotiable. Either the UK is in the single market or it is out.
27th February 2018