May’s Brexit plan is ambitious if nothing else.


Well there’s no need to speculate any further, Britain will be leaving both the EU and the single market. Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech this afternoon, in which she set out the government’s plans for leaving the European Union, was ambitious if nothing else.

Eschewing the option of remaining party to the EEA agreement, May has stated that we will not be seeking continued membership of the single market. Instead, she aims to conclude a bespoke “comprehensive and ambitious free trade agreement” with the European Union, ending European Court of Justice jurisdiction, contributions to the EU budget, and controlling the number of migrants entering the country from europe.

The fact that all of these things can actually be achieved by remaining an EEA member apparently is of little consequence. The plan is to skip over an interim arrangement and go straight to the final deal. Given the EU’s historical lethargy in completing bespoke free trade arrangements, one has to wonder whether May has bitten off more than she can chew in pursuing one within a two year time period.

There are a vast range of areas that will need to be covered. Passporting rights for financial services, customs operations, mutual recognition agreements, government procurement, intellectual properties, dispute settlement, and so on and so on.

There is a mechanism within Article 50 for extending the two year negotiation period, but it requires the unanimous approval of all 27 remaining member states. And whilst we are admittedly not starting from scratch, the pursuit of a bespoke arrangement in such a timeframe is a big stretch.

May’s plan to avoid the cliff-edge is for a phased implementation of this deal. What exactly that means is anyone’s guess, but it would still seem to suggest that the deal itself will be concluded within two years. This does nothing to increase the distance between us and the rocks below.

Encouragingly though there was an acknowledgement that in order to fully grasp the opportunities that Brexit affords us, we need to be out of both the Common External Tariff and the Common Commercial Policy. It’s the first time we’ve heard a prominent politician actually acknowledge the difference between these areas of the European Union treaties and the customs union as it is widely interpreted. That level of detail will be essential in the negotiations.

Overall it was a rather emphatic speech. The tone of friendship and conciliation with Europe ran right throughout it, and the emphasis on leaving the EU not a being a rejection of our friends on the continent or the values we share with them was a welcome one.

Several times the PM used the word ‘partnership’ to describe her vision of our future relationship with the EU. Working with the EU as equals, rather than subordinates, is precisely what Brexiters want.

The emphasis on a global, outward looking Britain building relationships “with old friends and new allies alike” should finally lay to bed any notion that the Brexit vote was the UK retreating from the world, and May was keen to stress the UK’s historical internationalist outlook, and it’s racial and cultural diversity.

The emphasis on reconciliation was applied to the domestic arena too, with an assurance that powers reclaimed from Brussels wouldn’t stop at Westminster, but passed further down the chain to the devolved governments of the UK. Though there was a warning to Nicola Sturgeon in her emphasis on maintaining common trading standards across Britain that Scotland won’t be able to stay in the single market on it’s own, even if that were remotely possible.

May acknowledged that the referendum had been divisive, but the acknowledgement that Leave voters did so with their eyes open, accepting that there would be uncertain times ahead was a welcome change to the patronisation heaped on them by some in the remain camp.

Equally, Remainers will be pleased to hear that both houses of parliament will get a vote on the final Brexit deal. What happens should Parliament reject that deal though, is still unclear.

Ultimately, the speech will have pleased hard brexiters the most. Those leave voters who saw an interim EEA arrangement as the safest option will be a little concerned, and the assertion that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ is complete and utter nonsense. Relying on WTO arrangements only would be catastrophic.

The insistence that a good deal is in the best interests of both the UK and the EU, coupled with the themes of co-operation and friendship though, should mean that that is unlikely.

The indication that, were the EU to play hardball, the UK would position itself as the singapore of europe, with incredibly competitive tax rates was an interesting one. It is in fact, arguably something we should look to do anyway once we’ve left the EU, to really help us flourish at a global level.

Chancellor Philip Hammond, in an interview with German newspaper Die Welt this past week, suggested something similar. A Britain with competitive tax rates pursuing global trading arrangements and acting as a beacon of free trade is one many would like to see.

So it turns out brexit really does mean brexit. May’s speech was assured and statesmanlike, and her vision for Britain and it’s future relationship with the EU is admirable. Whether or not it’s achievable though, remains to be seen.


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