After a Week of Turmoil, Britain Publishes Its Plan for Brexit

The clock is ticking down to when Britain will leave the EU. Above, a construction workers replace panes of glass in the clockface of the Queen Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben, on Wednesday.

The clock is ticking down to when Britain will leave the EU. Above, a construction workers replace panes of glass in the clockface of the Queen Elizabeth Tower, commonly known as Big Ben, on Wednesday.


Leon Neal/Getty Images

LONDON—The British government published in detail Thursday the long-awaited plan for its future economic relationship with the European Union that triggered the resignations of two prominent cabinet ministers earlier this week.

The government hopes the proposal will inject fresh momentum into Brexit talks with less than nine months to go until Britain’s planned withdrawal from the bloc.

The contents of the 98-page document have already torpedoed a fragile truce between the warring factions in Prime Minister

Theresa May’s

ruling Conservatives over how close the U.K.’s economic ties to the EU should be after its departure in March 2019.

Mrs. May now faces the twin challenge of steering her plan through Parliament and persuading a skeptical EU to sign up to it before the time for negotiations runs out.

The so-called white paper proposes an ambitious free-trade area between the U.K. and the EU after Brexit. It suggests new institutional arrangements to oversee the new partnership and resolve disputes, citing international precedents such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the EU’s own association agreement with Ukraine.

The paper effectively commits the U.K. to mirroring EU product regulations in order to preserve cross-border trade in goods, while seeking a freer hand on services—a move that London acknowledged will inevitably mean less access for U.K. based financial firms to the EU market.

The final proposals were thrashed out by ministers at Chequers, the country retreat of successive prime ministers, late last week. On Sunday,

David Davis

announced his resignation as the U.K.’s top Brexit negotiator, saying he didn’t think the new approach would deliver the decisive break with the EU he favored.

His departure was followed Monday by the resignation of

Boris Johnson

as foreign secretary, who said the plan would leave the U.K. with the status of “a colony” of the EU. A handful of junior ministers have also followed the two cabinet members out the door.

The political turmoil now looks set to move to Parliament, where Mrs. May’s minority government maintains power thanks to the support of a group of Northern Irish lawmakers. Hard-line backers of a fundamental rupture with the EU have signaled they intend to try to force a change of course by amending key aspects of Brexit legislation that are currently open for debate.

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The proposals published Thursday detail a complex and untested customs arrangement in which the U.K. would collect one set of tariffs for goods entering Britain for sale in its own market and another set for products in transit to the EU.

Described as a “facilitated customs arrangement,” the proposal would allow the U.K. to set its own tariffs on goods while preserving cross-border supply chains with the EU, the paper said. That would allow the U.K. to negotiate its own bilateral free-trade accords.

The paper proposed a “common rulebook” for product standards and state aid rules, which critics say would effectively require the U.K. as the junior partner to follow EU rules. It said the U.K. will seek to participate in European regulatory agencies including for chemicals, aviation and medicines, and pursue close cooperation in areas including cross-border energy supply and transportation.

Preserving unfettered access to the EU market for financial services was once a central goal of the U.K.’s Brexit strategy. But it said Thursday it would instead seek to negotiate a framework enshrined in international law for the close cooperation between U.K. and EU financial regulators while preserving British autonomy on financial-sector rules. It acknowledged such an approach “means that the U.K. and the EU will not have current levels of access to each other’s markets.”

The paper also touched on immigration, a touchstone issue for many Brexit supporters. The U.K. said it wants visa-free travel for tourists and business visitors and easy access for students. But it said total freedom of movement between the U.K. and other EU countries must come to an end.

Write to Jason Douglas at