World / Politics

U.K. parliament suspends proceedings as Brexit white paper announcement descends into chaos


Debate in the U.K. Parliament’s lower house was formally suspended for five minutes Thursday, when the announcement of a key policy paper on the nation’s planned exit from the European Union descended into chaos after members of parliament complained they hadn’t received copies of the document.

In extraordinary scenes at the House of Commons, where newly appointed Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab was supposed to be announcing the controversial policy, members ran out of the room when they heard that copies of it were now available.

They then came running back in carrying boxes of the documents, handing them out to colleagues while Raab was trying to speak.

Suspending the proceedings, Speaker of the House John Bercow was clearly irritated and told Raab it was a source of “considerable unhappiness” that representatives had not been able to see the proposals sooner.

That Raab doesn’t seem to have much support in the chamber could be a sign of trouble to come. Parts of his speech that he might have hoped would raise cheers from his own party, seated behind him — on leaving the EU’s customs union and single market — were heard in silence.

The long-awaited proposal for the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU sets out proposals for a softer Brexit than Prime Minister Theresa May had initially planned, vowing to push through her plan to keep the U.K. closely tied to the European Union single market after Brexit.

Euroskeptics in her party are furious that the plan doesn’t deliver their vision of a clean split from the EU, making the paper perhaps the most contentious document of her two-year premiership.

May went ahead with publishing the 98-page “white paper” despite the resignation of two pro-Brexit Cabinet ministers and a growing rebellion from within her own party.

At its heart is a proposal for a new U.K.-EU “free trade area,” with interlinked customs regimes, and identical regulations for industrial goods and agri-food. While there would be “no tariffs on any goods,” the U.K.’s vast services sector will suffer significant disruption. Banks in particular will lose their current access to the EU market, as the government gives up on its earlier plan for both sides to recognize each other’s regulations.

May faces a huge task trying to persuade EU negotiators to accept that the proposals are viable, while also keeping her Conservative party and Parliament on side. Time is running out to reach an exit agreement by the self-imposed October deadline, and May’s plan has nothing new about the critical issue that’s holding up progress: avoiding customs checks at the border with Ireland.

Even so, May has appealed to European negotiators to “engage” with her blueprint in the same spirit of respect that she said her government was taking toward the EU’s own principles and red lines.