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White paper suggests Brexit means Britain leaving European Customs Union

Britain looks set to quit the European Customs Union, after a white paper setting out the Government's negotiating plan for Brexit ditched Theresa May's suggestion that the UK could remain an "associate member" after withdrawing from the EU.

The document also indicated Britain could become subject to a new arbitration panel to resolve disputes with the EU after it removes itself from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The keenly-awaited 77-page document unveiled by Brexit Secretary David Davis fleshed out the 12 key objectives set out by the Prime Minister in last month's Lancaster House speech, but offered few new details about the relationship the Government hopes to forge with the remaining EU.

It confirmed Mrs May's assurance that the end of Britain's 44-year EU membership would not come as an abrupt "cliff-edge" moment, but that changes including new immigration controls, customs systems and business regulations would be phased in gradually.

"For each issue, the time we need to phase in the new arrangements may differ; some might be introduced very quickly, some might take longer," said the paper.

"The interim arrangements we rely upon are likely to be a matter of negotiation. The UK will not, however, seek some form of unlimited transitional status. That would not be good for the UK and nor would it be good for the EU."

The paper restated Mrs May's intention to take Britain out of the Common Commercial Policy and Common External Tariff - the elements of the Customs Union which prevent the UK from striking free trade agreements with other countries.

But where she said at Lancaster House that she wanted cross-border trade to be kept "as frictionless as possible" either by the UK becoming an associate member, remaining a signatory to some elements of the CU or through a completely new customs agreement, the white paper made no mention of any possibility of continued membership.

Mrs May's official spokeswoman later insisted the white paper was "fully consistent" with the position set out by the PM in her speech.

The document accepted that a new dispute resolution mechanism will be needed to ensure "uniform and fair enforcement of agreements" when Britain is no longer subject to the ECJ - perhaps in the form of an arbitration panel created by a free trade agreement, whose decisions would not have a direct effect on UK law.

Mr Davis told the House of Commons that the white paper - published a day after MPs voted overwhelmingly to permit Mrs May to commence withdrawal negotiations under Article 50 of the EU treaties - would pave the way for "a new, positive and constructive partnership between Britain and the EU that works in our mutual interest".

He confirmed ministers' intention to trigger Article 50 by the end of March and said Britain would enter negotiations in "a position of strength".

And he urged the remaining 27 member states and European institutions to be guided in the upcoming talks by the principles of "international co-operation and good neighbourliness".

Labour's shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer dismissed the document - which comes more than seven months after the June 23 referendum vote for Brexit - as "a wish list, not an action plan".

"The white paper offers no certainty for EU citizens living in the UK, no additional detail on how workers' and consumer rights will be protected, and nothing on how full tariff-free access to the single market will be delivered," said Sir Keir.

He confirmed Labour will attempt to amend the Article 50 Bill to guarantee MPs a "meaningful" vote on the deal eventually secured by Mrs May.

Conservative MP Neil Carmichael indicated that he could be prepared to vote for Labour's amendment, telling BBC Radio 4's World at One: "I am not prepared to just stand by and watch any old Brexit deal be signed.

"I think it is really important that Parliament has a meaningful role from now on until any final deal emerges."

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said both Labour and Tories were now "committed to a hard Brexit that will do untold damage to our economy", while Labour's former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie, of the Open Britain campaign, described the paper as "a blueprint for hard Brexit".

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady noted that the plan contained no commitment to protect the NHS and public services from "predatory international companies" in future trade deals.

The CBI's director general Carolyn Fairbairn said that the pressure was now on the Government to deliver the "best possible deal" and avoid the "damaging" prospect of being forced to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules as a result of failing to reach agreement with Brussels.

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