May demands ‘respect’ from EU in unusual TV address

Labour attacks PM’s negotiating strategy as Rees-Mogg supports her ‘strong’ stance

UK prime minister Theresa May arrives to make a statement on Brexit negotiations at No 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Jack Taylor/WPA Pool/Getty Images

UK prime minister Theresa May arrives to make a statement on Brexit negotiations at No 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Jack Taylor/WPA Pool/Getty Images

 

Theresa May has accused the European Union of failing to treat Britain with respect over Brexit and of attempting to break up the United Kingdom with its proposal for the Border backstop.

In a highly unusual televised address from Downing Street, the British prime minister said the negotiations were at an impasse after EU leaders meeting at Salzburg said her Chequers plan was unworkable.

“Throughout this process, I have treated the EU with nothing but respect. The UK expects the same. A good relationship at the end of this process depends on it. At this late stage in the negotiations, it is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals without a detailed explanation and counterproposals. So we now need to hear from the EU what the real issues are and what their alternative is so that we can discuss them. Until we do, we cannot make progress,” she said.

Ms May said the EU was offering Britain only two options for a future economic relationship – membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) like Norway, or a Canada-style free trade agreement. She said the Norway option, which would oblige Britain to follow all the rules of the single market including free movement of people, would make a mockery of the referendum decision to leave the EU.

“The second option would be a basic free trade agreement for Great Britain that would introduce checks at the Great Britain/EU border. But even worse, Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the customs union and parts of the single market, permanently separated economically from the rest of the UK by a border down the Irish Sea,” she said.

“Creating any form of customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would not respect that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, in line with the principle of consent, as set out clearly in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

“It is something I will never agree to – indeed, in my judgment it is something no British prime minister would ever agree to. If the EU believe I will, they are making a fundamental mistake.”

Disaster

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the prime minister’s negotiating strategy had been a disaster from the start and she had shown herself to be incapable of getting a good deal for Britain.

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said Ms May’s strategy was collapsing around her and she was now “staring down the barrel” of a no-deal Brexit.

“I think the levels of anxiety are going up around the country day after day and the prime minister I think is appearing to be in denial. I don’t understand why she’s failed to hear the message that the Chequers proposal wasn’t going to be accepted by the EU and frankly it’s not going to be accepted by her own party,” he said.

Brexiteers on the Conservative backbenches praised the prime minister’s defiant message to the EU but Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the hardline Brexiteer European Research Group of Tory MPs, said she should now abandon her Chequers proposal.

“The tone is strong and forthright and shows confidence in the UK’s future. However, there is still no reason to suppose that Chequers can work either for the UK or the EU,” said Mr Rees-Mogg. “It is time for the government to start putting forward as its plan a Canada-style free trade agreement for the whole of the UK. This is the most realistic approach and similar to the EU’s proposal. Moreover, as every vote in parliament has so far shown, it is the one way which could command a majority in the House of Commons.”