UK single market white paper: “irony so bitter it makes your eyes bleed”

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Only a government as intellectually incoherent as this one could publish in the same week two important documents with absolutely no consistent philosophy underpinning the policy objectives behind them. Worse, the objectives themselves seem diametrically opposed.

On Monday, we got the border operating model setting out all the new barriers to trade the government intends to erect next year between the UK and our largest export market as a result of Brexit. Three days later, a white paper was published extolling the benefits of a barrier-free UK single market and declaring that “open markets enable frictionless trade that supports efficiency and productivity, increases business certainty and facilitates better investment decisions.”

It is as if barrier-free trade is both undesirable and desirable at the same time. Single deeply integrated markets are acceptable apparently, as long as they have London at the centre and not Brussels.

The foreword by Business Secretary Alok Sharma could, with a couple of minor changes (substituting EU for UK for example), have been written by Jacques Delors and delivered by Guy Verhofstadt and no one in Europe would have batted an eyelid. This is Sharma’s quite shameless opening sentence:

“For centuries the UK’s Internal Market has been the bedrock of our shared prosperity, with people, products, ideas and investment moving seamlessly between our nations. As a Union, we are greater than the sum of our parts.”

Peter Foster, public policy editor at the FT tweeted:

Writing in The Times: Bouncing back means working as one union, Sharma says without a trace of irony:

“From food production and labelling, to the parts used in manufacturing and engineering, the idea of businesses having to expand resources and costs adapting to different regulations across different parts of the UK is completely unthinkable.”

The word “frictionless” is so important it appears ten times throughout the document but only in the context of intra-UK trade. Frictionless trade with the EU27, worth over £600bn a year, is not mentioned and isn’t even a negotiating objective in the present trade talks.

The government openly admits it wants the “ability to rapidly and flexibly develop regulation that works best for citizens in every part of the UK” and says it is committed “to retaining high regulatory standards (such as animal welfare) – but exceeding the various protections offered by the EU”, ignoring the fact that this could have done this at any time in the last 45 years. EU regulations are the minimum, not the maximum.

Eliminating barriers is apparently vital “to protect the interests of businesses and consumers by ensuring they can continue to do business in all parts of the UK without unnecessary barriers. Such barriers, if allowed to emerge, could increase business costs, in some cases passed onto consumers, or reduce consumer choice. In some instances, they could add up if multiple areas of regulation are affected.”

Staggering. Or how about this one (paragraph 76) setting out the benefits we enjoy through a single market:

“The Government’s stakeholder discussions have revealed the importance of a seamless Internal Market to allow business to develop efficient supply and distribution chains for goods. Having consistent regulation throughout the UK was seen as a way of reducing business complexity and cost and unlocking efficiencies and economies of scale, which in turn increases international competitiveness.”

This article was first published by Yorkshire Bylines.