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Brexit Means...

The Brexit White Paper is 77 Pages of Nothing Much

The plan for Brexit is a vague copy-and-paste job.

An protester at the Fuck Brexit rally days after the result of the EU referendum in June (Photo by Oscar Webb)

"We do not approach these negotiations expecting failure, but anticipating success."

This – the opening sentence from Theresa May's foreword to the Government's White Paper for exiting the European Union – is a strange way to start. Why would you evoke "failure" in your first phrase? Why is success "anticipated" rather than expected? The government is dogged by the idea that Brexit is going to be a disaster and this repressed truth keeps manifesting itself throughout the document.


The awkward foreword makes more sense, however, when you realise it's literally copy-and-pasted from the conclusion to Theresa May's speech to Lancaster House on the 17th of January. This was supposed to clarify her Brexit strategy but simply led to Parliament demanding a detailed White Paper, which the government initially refused to produce, to compensate for a vague and circular speech. Two weeks later and we've got this hastily put-together document – it's basically the speech, again, but embellished with graphs and bullet points.

JP Morgan described it as having a concerning "shallowness of analysis and absence of detail"; the Liberal Democrats called it a "whitewash not a white paper"; and the Scottish and liberal British press have said it's nothing more than an "information vacuum" and a "wish-list disguised as a strategy".

So what can, or can't, be learned from this 77-page exercise in avoiding the question?

Nothing Is Guaranteed
The White Paper continues a trope of Theresa May's Brexit discourse so far: it "seeks to ensure" but never guarantees; it wants and it hopes, but it can't confirm. Its language is riddled with banalities and qualifications. It is shot through with insecurity like a bad Tinder bio. In the chapter on maintaining continuity rather than confusion, the government writes that EU law will be converted into British law the day after leaving the EU. This, which again is copy-and-pasted from May's speech, sounds clear. Except, if you look closer, you'll see that it will only happen "wherever practical and appropriate", and, for business, nothing will change "significantly overnight" and "won't be subject to sudden change". These ambiguous qualifications are everywhere in the document; whatever practical, appropriate, significant or sudden really means is, of course, up to the government to decide.


A recurring device the paper uses is a self-evident statement, the kind you'd expect a politician to rely on when being interrogated by a journalist rather than in a policy paper. On the irreconcilable question of Scotland and the UK's other devolved governments, it says, "A good deal will be one that works for all parts of the UK."

On the question of fisheries – the fishing industry was one of the few in favour of Brexit – the government has this illuminating declaration: "We will want to ensure a sustainable and profitable seafood sector." The government has been retreating into tautologies for a while now – "Brexit means Brexit" – and the White Paper shows this semantic tic is here to stay.

What Isn't Mentioned? Unions, Erasmus and Overseas Britons
What's most worrying about any document that claims to be exhaustive is, of course, the stuff that doesn't get mentioned. Under the scant section on "Protecting Workers' Rights", there is no mention of the role trade unions will play in a post-Brexit economy. Instead, a large paragraph is dedicated to extolling the government's treatment of workers, including the introduction of a National Living Wage (a minimum wage re-brand) and high levels of employment (which obscures the levels of part-time, zero-hours and precarious work).

It then mentions a watered down version of plans sounded out by May's government a few months ago for workers to be represented on the boards of publicly owned companies. This idea of having worker representatives present in board meetings has been diluted to the mere "[ensuring] that the voices of workers are heard by the boards of publicly-run companies". Incidentally, the idea derives, ultimately, from Mussolini's corporatist state, which gave workers a symbolic presence in companies while bypassing the role of unions, so we're in good company here.


If organised labour gets the short thrift, so too, as the Lib Dems pointed out, does the Erasmus programme – which allows British students to study for free in Europe – and the general status of Britons living abroad in the EU to work and travel after Brexit. Far from being exhaustive, the White Paper leaves larges gaps in its strategic goals, meaning the government can do whatever it likes in these areas when the negotiations are over.

The EU Is Quite Handy, Actually
As the paper progresses through its chapters on trade agreements, security and customs unions, it spends a lot of time explaining what role the EU currently plays in these areas. This is probably to fill up some blank space, but it ends up providing quite a rich picture of how the EU is, in many ways, useful and essential to the economic, social and political functioning of its members.

We learn how the EU ensures a "seamless and frictionless border between Northern Ireland and Ireland"; how it ensures "easy access to healthcare for UK nationals living in the EU"; how it afforded Britain an "unprecedented" position in trade negations by allowing it zero tariffs on goods and a common regulatory framework with the single market; how it "exports more to the UK than vice versa"; how British transport, energy and communications "interact extensively with the EU" to "enable" the success of the economy as a whole; how its Euratom Treaty provides a legal framework for complicated and dangerous matters like overseeing "radioactive waste management".


You almost get the sense that whoever wrote it was sad about leaving.

Brexit Is About Feeling, Not Fact
Although the White Paper avoids discussing the referendum vote itself, it does mention some of the arguments that were mobilised by the campaign to leave the European Union, and how they figure into the government's strategy. In terms of sovereignty and immigration – the two most important issues in the referendum discourse – the white paper is quite revealing.

Under the section on "Taking Control Of Our Own Laws" – which sounds quite Trumpian – the government writes, "Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that." It admits that Parliament has always remained sovereign during Britain's membership with the EU. In other words, a central tenet of the Brexiteer ideology – Britain outsourced its God-given sovereignty to the EU – is exposed as a feeling rather than a fact.

Likewise, when discussing immigration, the paper says "the sheer volume [of long-term net migration]  has given rise to public concernabout pressure on public services". The nuance here is worth examining. Rather than wanting to "control" migration from the EU because it can prove that too many migrants harm public services, the white paper talks about "public concern". It's admitting that the point is to appease the public imagination, which assumes there's a link between immigration and the sorry state of Britain's public services.


Brexit, and the nativist turn we're seeing in general across the world, works well as electoral politics because of stuff like this: it appeals to sentiment, affect, desire and everything else abandoned by technocratic politics. It doesn't matter if sovereignty was actuallycurtailed by the EU or if EU migrants affect your provision to public services (reminder: they don't); this deep well of anger is a useful resource. It can be exorcised at the ballot box. The problem, then, is translating this into policy. The White Paper shows us that the government's task isn't just to negotiate a withdrawal between Britain and the EU, but also between the fictitious imagination Brexit has abided and the political reality it's coming up against.


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