Theresa May’s most detailed speech yet on UK-EU relations after Brexit received a mixed reaction on Friday (2 March), with senior EU lawmakers warning that the UK government continued to “bury its head in the sand”.
Speaking at the Mansion House in London, the UK Prime Minister ruled out an “off-the-shelf” model for UK-EU relations, calling instead for the two parties to strike a free trade pact that would be the most ambitious in the world.
But she admitted that “people need to face up to some hard facts…life is going to be different.”
“In certain ways, our access to each other’s markets will be less than it is now. How could the EU’s structure of rights and obligations be sustained, if the UK – or any country – were allowed to enjoy all the benefits without all of the obligations?” she said.
Commenting that “neither of us can have exactly what we want,” she added that the UK would not agree to a deal with the EU offering “the rights of Canada and the obligations of Norway.”
May said that the UK would seek associate membership of a series of EU agencies, including chemicals, medicines, aviation, in exchange for “an appropriate financial contribution”.
Membership of the European Medicines Agency “would mean investment in new innovative medicines continuing in the UK, and it would mean these medicines getting to patients faster,” she said.
The proposal follows pressure from the chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors, two of the UK’s largest export industries, for the UK to remain signed up to single market rules governing their sectors.
Meanwhile, in a bid to square the circle of brokering an agreement on customs while being outside the EU’s customs union, May called for the creation of a “customs partnership” under which the UK would mirror EU requirements on imports at its borders.
May’s five tests for a post-Brexit agreement also included an independent “arbitration mechanism” to resolve disputes, and a deal on data protection to ensure the continued free-flow of data.
However, she added that the UK would not seek to be part of the EU’s digital single market.
While the speech was broadly welcomed across May’s Conservative party, it received a mixed reception in Brussels, underscoring the increasingly large divide between policymakers on either side of the Channel.
“I don’t see how we could reach an agreement on Brexit if the UK government continues to bury its head in the sand like this,” said EPP leader Manfred Weber.
The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier commented that May’s speech provided “clarity” and that her “recognition of trade-offs” would be taken account of by EU leaders in talks on a future free trade agreement.
For his part, Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who leads the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering committee, warned that there would be “little appetite to renegotiate the rules of the single market to satisfy a compromise crafted to placate a divided Conservative party.”