Brussels gives Theresa May’s Brexit speech a cautious welcome

‘Cherry-picking’ will not help Britain’s plans to access the EU market – warns Barnier

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s leader on Brexit,  welcomed as ‘reassuring’ what he saw as Ms May’s ‘re-confirmation of our December agreement on the Irish border’. Photograph:  Dominic Lipinksi/PA Wire

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s leader on Brexit, welcomed as ‘reassuring’ what he saw as Ms May’s ‘re-confirmation of our December agreement on the Irish border’. Photograph: Dominic Lipinksi/PA Wire

 

The charge of “cherry-picking” was still in the subtext of reaction in Brussels to British prime minister Theresa May’s speech on Friday.

There was some welcome for her commitment to the “deepest and broadest possible” trade agreement, her apparent willingness to face, as she put it, some “hard facts” in accepting that with Brexit the UK would face reduced access to the EU market, and her acceptance of the inevitability of both a commitment to high regulatory standards, and to conforming to EU state aid rules.

But Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s leader on Brexit, warned: “Theresa May needed to move beyond vague aspirations, we can only hope that serious proposals have been put in the post. While I welcome the call for a deep and special partnership, this cannot be achieved by putting a few extra cherries on the Brexit cake.”

But he welcomed as “reassuring” what he saw as Ms May’s “re-confirmation of our December agreement on the Irish border”. “We now need credible legislative proposals detailing how the UK seeks to achieve this in practice,” he said.

The prime minister outlined in some detail proposals for what has been called Option Two in the package of three solutions to the hard border challenge set out in the December agreement. These include a free pass on the Border for small businesses, and technological and “trusted trader” solutions for large businesses.

She reiterated that the UK would be leaving the customs union, and carefully avoided the controversial proposals set out in the withdrawal agreement to give effect to the fallback “Option Three” and to establishing a “common regulatory area”.

Upbeat tweet

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was more upbeat, tweeting that “I welcome PM May’s speech. Clarity about the UK leaving the Single Market and Customs Union & recognition of trade-offs will inform the EU commission guidelines on a future free trade agreement.”

Like European Council president Donald Tusk, however, Mr Barnier had made clear in recent days that he regards the UK’s suggestions of “managed regulatory divergence”, and Ms May’s three baskets of regulatory divergence as “illusory”, “cherry-picking” provisions that will not run with ambitious plans for access to the EU market.

Ms May pledged that “The UK will need to make a strong commitment that its regulatory standards will remain as high as the EU’s. That commitment, in practice, will mean that UK and EU regulatory standards will remain substantially similar in the future.” That was some basis for discussion, observers believe.  

The head of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, was not convinced that the speech represented a new realism on Ms May’s part. “After what I have heard today,” he tweeted, “I am even more concerned. 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.”