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Confusion in UK as Brexit strategy questioned in Westminster, Scotland and Brussels
Does the British government have a Brexit strategy? The Labour opposition has seized on a leaked memo to claim it does not, while Scottish leaders have pitched for a special arrengement that would allow them to stay in the single market. Meanwhile, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson earned himself a scolding from a top Eurocrat.
Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem has dismissed as "intellectually impossible" the notion that Britain could retain unfettered access to the European single market while also cutting EU immigration.
Johnson told Czech daily Hospodarske Noviny that Britain would "probably" have to leave the European customs union but still have "free trade" with EU states.
Opinions in the UK on how to approach leaving the European Union vary, as became painfully clear earlier this week when a memo was leaked revealing that the government may not even have a detailed plan for Brexit.
The memo, produced by consultancy firm Deloitte, also said civil servants are struggling to cope with more than 500 Brexit-related projects.
An extra 30,000 extra staff may be needed to handle the workload, it estimated.
The reaction of the opposition Labour Party was swift.
”This cannot carry on until March of next year,” said opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. “When is the prime minister going to come up with a plan?
In response the government insisted that it does have a plan for Brexit but people working on it agree it is not final.
“There's a plan that I've been involved with which does actually rest on keeping Britain within the single market temporarily,” says Robert Oulds, founder of the Thatcherite Bruges Group.
“There are many different ideas,” he says, pointing out that the leaked memo “wasn’t actually commissioned by the government it wasn't part of the cabinet office, it wasn't part of any discussions in Downing Street” and claming that it has been taken out of context.
“But there isn't a definitive plan adopted by the government yet because they are putting it together and even when there is, it won't be revealed openly or publicly,” Oulds admits.
“It will be discussed privately with the other members of the European Council.”
Scotland wants special status
Meanwhile in Scotland, where people voted massively in favour of remaining in the EU during June's Brexit referendum, there is an atmosphere of confusion.
Earlier this week, the Scottish parliament adopted a motion that asks the cabinet, led by the Scottish National Party (SNP), to urge London to make a separate deal that would allow Scotland to remain both in the single market and in the UK.
But critics say that opens the door to a new bid for independence.
“The SNP want continuing membership of the single market but don’t tell us how this would be achieved,” says Sottish Labour leader Jackie Baillie.
“In truth, membership of the single market requires membership of the European Union. Scotland would need to be an independent country. And would then need to apply to join the EU as a new member state,” giving rise to many, complicated problems such as switching currency and putting up boundaries with England.
“The Scottish government made clear that independence is obviously an option, that they reserve the right to have a second referendum if all else fails,” says Andrew Scott of the University of Edinburgh.
“But this is not a position that Scotland wanted to be in. I think the first minister is quite clear that her first objective is to try and secure membership of the single market within the context of the UK that presently exist, so there's no rush towards a second independence referendum."