UK’s Brexit trade stance is madness without method

Brexit occasionally elicits light-hearted moments: one such is recent speculation that the British negotiating stance is too chaotic, too inept, to be taken seriously: channelling Blackadder, there must be a “cunning plan”.

Brussels diplomats, used to dealing with British civil servants who may be many things but never underprepared, are heard to wonder about what is coming next, what does Theresa May have up her sleeve? There must be method behind the madness, surely?

The UK’s first Brexit position paper, on the customs union, amounted to an exploration of the use of definite and indefinite articles. The UK wants to leave the customs union only to remain a member of a customs union.

The difference is easy to spot: everything stays exactly the same apart from the way in which the new customs union gives Liam Fox, the UK trade secretary, something to do, namely to negotiate trade deals with other countries – something that will be permitted by a customs union but is against the law in the customs union.

This is definitely madness without method. Why would the European Union agree to this? It’s a good question. But, at risk of looking too closely at all of this, there is, perhaps, the merest hint of a strategy behind the apparent chaos. The clue lies with the desire to leave the EU in a formal sense but with as little as possible, in practical terms, changing as a result.


A similar theme emerges in the paper that grapples with the Border. Again, the British position is that nothing will change on the day of Brexit: the Border, from their perspective, will remain exactly as it is today with complete freedom of movement of both goods and people.

This approach allows the British to claim that if anything goes wrong, it won’t be their fault. Any problem at the Border will be the consequence of Brussels and Dublin putting up obstacles.

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