This week saw the first concrete steps taken towards the Brexit process, as on 1 February, UK Members of Parliament (MPs) voted to approve the triggering of Article 50 on the 9th March. The triggering of Article 50 will initiate the formal process of the UK leaving the EU. Meanwhile, a day later, on 2 February, the UK government published a White Paper, laying out the key elements of its plan for Brexit.
The Parliamentary Green Light
After much discussion and a Supreme Court judgement on whether or not Parliament would have a say on triggering Article 50, the assent of the House of Commons proved remarkably easy to secure. MPs votes by a considerable margin of 498 in favour to 114 against to endorse the government’s plan to trigger the Article in early March.
The wideness of the vote came after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to whip MPs to vote in favour of the government’s Bill. Despite this, 47 Labour MPs nonetheless rebelled by voting against. They were joined in opposing the Bill by 50 Scottish Nationalist MPs, 7 Liberal Democrats, and a sole Conservative MP, veteran Europhile Ken Clarke.
The Brexit White Paper
One of the UK government’s strategies to secure the support of remain-backing Conservatives in the Article 50 vote had been to promise to publish a detailed paper outlining their plan for Brexit. The White Paper, published a day after the vote, in general confirms what Prime Minister Theresa May said in her January speech on the subject, but goes into more detail in certain areas.
For example, the UK’s economic relationship to the EU, the White Paper confirmed that the UK intends to leave the single market, but stressed that it would seek to maintain “the freest and most frictionless trade possible in goods and services,” and signalled that the UK may seek to secure special terms of access for specific economic sectors.
In terms of immigration, the White Paper stressed that the UK government considers it a priority to control immigration from the UK, but also stated that it would ‘consider very carefully’ the impact of reduced immigration on different sectors of the economy.
Finally, on the contentious issue of the UK border with the Republic of Ireland, the White Paper prioritised maintaining “as seamless and frictionless a border as possible.” However, it also stressed that the openness of this border must not be allowed to compromise the integrity of UK government control over immigration. How this tension will be resolved remains unclear.
Overall, therefore, the vote in the Commons and the publication of the government’s White Paper has given the Brexit process a sense of reality, as the first stages of the procedure are formally launched and some substance is released as to what the main negotiating points will be.