And so it came to pass, in the year of our Lord 2017, that the Prime Minister of the UK finally did deliver a speech pertaining to Brexit which was more than mere soundbites and promises of what Brexit entails. (Which to date had entailed Brexit, apparently.)
For yes, after weeks of speculation with regards to what exactly the British government is seeking to achieve upon the commencement of the negotiations to withdraw from the EU, and trailed hints to the media, Mrs May did set out her vision for the future in a speech this week. Evidently, the Prime Minister hoped to silence those critics who have said she has been evasive about her plans, or indeed even lacking in plans. Whilst some aspects of the UK’s negotiating position had already been revealed over the past few months, there were interesting statements within the speech.
I thought that POLITICO EU’s take on the speech was rather apt:
“David Cameron would complain that Theresa May was like a submarine, disappearing for months only to emerge at the time of her choosing. As prime minister, she is behaving no differently.
Having spent months preparing for her big Brexit reveal, she resurfaced with intent Tuesday, taking control of Britain’s exit from the European Union just as it threatened to run away from her.
Reporters, starved of phone signal and breakfast, had trudged up the stairs from their dingy holding pen in the bowels of Lancaster House in central London dreading more platitudes and soundbites.
They needn’t have worried.
…May set out her stall with a clarity that left few in Westminster — or in Europe — complaining. Not everyone will like what she is saying, but May can no longer be accused of not knowing what she wants.”
Before Theresa May delivered her speech, there were some details of which we already were aware of, as well as areas we knew she would address.
For example, we knew Mrs would firmly rule out the possibility of the UK staying in the European single market, and she would seek to make immigration controls a priority in Brexit negotiations. It had been trailed that ending unlimited EU immigration and abolishing the European Court of Justice’s role in British courts will be among 12 “negotiating principles”, Mrs May would discuss during the speech at Lancaster House in London, along with creating the freedom to negotiate bilateral trade deals outside Europe. The decision to withdraw from the single market was seemingly to ensure that the British government delivers on Leave voters’ desire to take back control over immigration.Yet, it had been said that the Prime Minister would be less definitive on whether the UK will seek to remain in the bloc’s customs union, which allows goods to move freely without customs checks.
This trailing in the media prior to the delivery of the speech was unsurprising. After all, Theresa May and David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, had both already implicitly ruled out the UK remaining in the single market. This however wasn’t the brave and bold political statement is sounded like, but rather an expression of political reality. There is no way the EU would allow the UK to remain a member of the single market whilst it insisted on imposing restrictions on free movement and pulling out of the European Court of Justice.
As for continued membership of the customs union – this is a very complex area. Moreover, despite some claims from politicians, there is not a binary choice between membership of the customs union, and the ability to do free-trade deals with other countries. Turkey, for example, has a customs agreement with the EU, but does have some limited flexibility to initiate its own trade agreements. Precise arrangements are open to negotiation. So on that basis, it was expected that Theresa May would place an emphasis on the ability of the UK to set its own trade policy post-Brexit as a priority.
So what exactly did the Prime Minister outline on Tuesday?
Theresa May confirmed the UK cannot and will not remain a member of the single market after it leaves the EU. She said this was because, as European leaders have stressed, the UK would have to accept EU rules and regulations and be bound by the European Court of Justice. So instead, she said, the UK will push for a new “comprehensive free trade agreement”, giving it “the greatest possible access” to the single market.
The deal might contain “elements” of the current arrangements, she said, singling out the the motor trade and financial services as examples.
The Prime Minister specified that the UK will exit the EU customs union, saying elements of it (the Common Commercial Policy and the Common External Tariff) prevented the UK from striking trade deals around the world.
At the same time, she said she wanted the UK “to have a customs union agreement with the EU”. (Basically, a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.)
She added: “Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the customs union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position.”
The British government has concstantly made clear that there will be restrictions to EU migration as a result of the referendum. This was reiterated by Mrs May in her speech this week.
She said: “The message from the public before and during the referendum campaign was clear: Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe. And that is what we will deliver.”
But the precise model to be used has not yet been confirmed. (It is easier to make promises, before you realise the complex issues arising from actually keeping the promise.)
During the referendum campaign, Vote Leave called for a “points-based” system, similar to that used in Australia. But this model, which would involve applications being accepted on the basis of skills, has been rejected by Mrs May, who says it would not give sufficient control to the government.
An alternative, which Home Secretary Amber Rudd has said is under consideration, is to require migrants to have a work permit before coming to work in the UK, with ministers able to prioritise different sectors.
The Prime Minister confirmed that upon the conclusion of the negotiations, Parliament shall vote on the agreed deal. She said: “l will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.”
After her speech, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, told MPs the UK would be leaving the EU whatever the outcome of the vote.
But bear in mind that the British government will also be forced to consult Parliament prior to even commencing negotiations if it should lose the legal challenge over Article 50. (The UK Supreme Court recently announced it shall hand down judgment on this issue next Tuesday 24th January.)
Deal or no deal
The Prime Minister gave her strongest warning yet ahead of the negotiations, saying a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe” and would “not be the act of a friend”.
She added that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”, and threatened to walk away from the table should any proposed deal not be considered good enough for the UK.
There was another warning for the EU in the speech, as she told her fellow leaders to “respect difference”, rather than “trying to hold things together by force, tightening a vice-like grip that ends up crushing into tiny pieces the very things you want to protect”.
UK contributions to the EU Budget
As it will not be in the single market, Mrs May vowed that the UK will not pay “huge sums” to EU budgets.
In some circumstances it may have to make an “appropriate contribution” to be part of European schemes, she said. Yet she added: “But the principle is clear: the days of Britain making vast contributions to the European Union every year will end.”
(Good news, NHS! You might just receive some of that long-foretold £350m a week… Oh wait. Nevermind.)
In sum: Theresa May sought to take charge of the upcoming Brexit talks by deciding what they will be about. She will not even try to squeeze new concessions on free movement out of Brussels while staying in the single market. Instead, the UK will be leaving the free-trade bloc of its own accord.
We now know for certain the British government wants a trade deal so that it can exit stage left from almost all of Europe’s legal and economic strands and regulations. In setting out her cards this way, Mrs May lowered the UK demands, but took control over what will be laid out on the table.
Whilst that sounds as though it is Theresa 1, the EU 0, it isn’t all that it appears at first glance.You see, the Prime Minister might have seized control of the agenda but she has sacrificed time. In calling for everything, including a new trade deal between the UKand the EU, to be concluded within two years she has bound herself in a restricted schedule most people in Brussels will consider impossible.
In addition, any successful deal will rest on the length and scope of “the transition,” which Mrs May admitted was vital to avoiding a cliff edge for the economy. The Prime Minister attempted to dress up the plea for time in strident terms, saying the UK would not accept an “unlimited transition”. The problem is that whilst this was an attempt to strongarm the EU into ensuring a smooth and timely transition period and therefore protect the UK’s economy, the EU will not consider the length of the UK’s transition peroid to affect it, and so will not strive to look out for the UK’s interests.
Mrs May also called for a “phased process of implementation.” This was open-ended and potentially wide-ranging.A transition might be about immigration controls, she said, or the new customs agreement, or criminal justice matters. “For each issue,” she said, “the time we need to phase-in the new arrangements may differ.”Again, there is another problem for the Prime Minister: the EU is fine with a transition, so long as the UK sticks to the rules of the club. Again, it will not seek to curb the length of a transition period.
Mrs May admitted the “arrangements” would be a matter of negotiation, but she will be hard pressed to enter the 2020 general election without full control of many of the Brexit promises, particularly immigration.
Whilst Mrs May’s long-awaited speech did eventually provide some detail and a dash of certainty, I also wonder whether it provoked more questions than answers.