Prime Minister Theresa May declared the start of two years of Brexit negotiations today (17 January) with a landmark speech setting out the UK’s 12 priorities, including leaving the single market, a new negotiation on the EU customs union and a parliament vote on any final deal.
The 47-minute speech – the most important statement thus far by the British government on its negotiating objectives – had been heavily trailed in advance, and saw the pound rise slightly against the dollar, after dropping at the weekend on the back of selective leaks of the speech.
The PM made detailed her plan in London’s Lancaster House, where, in 1988, Margaret Thatcher gave a speech welcoming the creation of the single market, to explicitly rule out the UK remaining a member of it.
May’s 12 point plan – effectively only a wish-list with which to go into talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier – comprised the following. She also warned fellow EU leaders that any attempt to “punish” the UK for leaving the EU would be “a calamitous act of self-harm.”
12: We believe a phased process of implementation will be in the interests of Britain, the EU institutions and member states. pic.twitter.com/5gMEb1Klpk
— UK Prime Minister (@Number10gov) January 17, 2017
- “Certainty whenever we can.” The PM explained this as “give and take. [There will] have to be compromises, [which] require imagination. Not everyone will be able to know everything at every stage. Where we can offer that certainty we will do so. She pointed to farming and university funding, which have both been given funding guarantees until at least 2020. In an unexpected additional announcement, May also explicitly promised that there would be a vote of both houses of parliament on the final deal.
- Stronger Britain. May characterised this as taking “control of own affairs, take back control of laws, end European Court of Justice jurisdiction. She added, “Our laws will be made in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast [and] interpreted by judges here, not in Luxembourg.”
- Strengthen the Union. The British PM promised to “consult” all of the devolved assemblies on the deal, but without any giving way of a veto, leaving Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon again the option of calling a second independence referendum if she believes Scotland wants to stay in the single market. May also promised that returning powers from Brussels would be devolved downwards to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast where appropriate.
- Common travel area with Ireland. With snap elections now due in Northern Ireland, May promised a common travel area, but with little detail on how border controls may look after Brexit when the border becomes a UK/EU land border.
- Control immigration from Europe. May told the audience – which included ambassadors from at least several of the other 27 member states, “When numbers get too high, public support for the system falters.”
- Rights of EU citizens in the UK, and UK nationals in Europe. May said she wanted “to guarantee rights as early as we can”. This could even be “straightaway”, she added, although revealed that across other European capitals there were “many favour [it], others do not.” She promised to “resolve the challenge as soon as possible – [it is the] right and fair thing to do.”
- Protect workers’ rights. May said these would be “fully protected and maintained”, and even that a Conservative government would “build on them”, She also repeated a previous promise that the “voices of workers be heard by boards of publically listed companies”, although has stepped back from a previous idea that they would sit on boards, on the German model.
- Free trade. Here May explicitly stated for the first time that “this cannot mean membership of the single market”. She said, “that would mean to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all”. She also pledged that “making contributions to EU every year will end”, although did not rule out making individual or one-off contributions.
- New trade deals with other countries. Among others, May mentioned Australia, the US, and New Zealand, and boasted that President-elect Donald Trump had said at the weekend that the UK would be at the ‘front of line’ for a US-UK deal. But on the EU Customs Union, May said that “full membership prevents full comprehensive trade deals. The PM stated that she wanted “no external tariffs, but customs agreement with EU, either completely new or associate member or signatory to some elements”. Aware that this sounded vague, May added she had “an open mind on how we do it, [because it is] not means but ends that matter.
- Science and tech research cooperation
- Fight against crime and terrorism
- Avoiding ‘permanent political purgatory’. May said she wanted a “phased process of implementation” of a post-Brexit deal, an “interim arrangement”, in order to “avoid (the) cliff-edge” of falling out of the EU with no successor deal completely in place. But this must avoid the limbo of a “permanent political purgatory”
After the speech, May took five questions before leaving Lancaster House.
But she told assembled reporters and ambassadors that she would not be giving a “blow by blow commentary” on negotiations, as that “is not in the national interest.”
May added that this “is not a game or a time for opposition for opposition’s sake”. The decisions made in the next two years would “define the country for many years to come”.
It is “not my job to fill column inches”, May said.
She also explicitly stated she wished the other 27 members well as they “continue their journey” of ever greater integration but then – at the end of the speech – reserved special mention of the fact the UK was willing to walk away rather than accept a bad deal.
Ready as soon as UK is. Only notification can kick off negotiations. #Brexit
— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) January 17, 2017
Act of calamitous self-harm
In her strongest words yet, the British premier said, “a punitive model to punish Britain would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe”.
“Britain could not and would not accept such an approach.”
Optimistically, May declared that after the “divisive” referendum of June 2016 (won 52%-48% by ‘Leave’, although with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voting Remain), the country was “coming together”.
“No deal is better than a bad deal,” May said, then repeated Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s warning to the German media at the weekend, that the UK could slash corporate tax rates and end the “current economic model” of a social market security net, if the EU does not meet UK demands.
But, May concluded, “We want (the) EU to be a success. [It is an] economically rational thing – trade is not a zero-sum game, more of it makes us all more prosperous.”
Ahead of the speech, The Guardian published leaks of a private speech May gave to bankers at Goldman Sachs as a Remain campaigner, pointing out the value of the single market and the threat to UK businesses.
Opponents of Brexit also pointed out that the Conservative party election manifesto of 2015 pledged continued membership of the single market.
Britain’s right-wing pro-Brexit press, The Sun and the Daily Mail, had both welcomed the speech in advance, with Murdoch-owned Sun declaring “Great Brexpectations.”
— Sky News (@SkyNews) January 16, 2017
Asked by the BBC if she agreed with her own pre-referendum that the UK would be “poorer” if it left the EU, May merely replied that so far economic indicators had been better than expected.
Asked by The Times if a ‘no’ vote in parliament at the end of the talks would mean that the UK ended up staying in the EU, she did not answer the question directly.
On the same day, consumer inflation in the UK reached 1.6%, largely due to an increase in food prices in the wake of the devaluing pound.
More than an hour after the end of May’s speech, there was no official reaction from the opposition Labour party.
However, German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed the fact that the British government had “finally brought a bit more clarity” about their plans.