Theresa May begins to show her hand on Brexit
Reassurance on common travel area from an Irish perspective but hardball too, which may not go down well with fellow EU member states
In defining the UK’s Brexit negotiating priorities yesterday Prime Minister Theresa May provided the Government in Dublin with an important and welcome reassurance. Attempting to preserve the common travel area on and between these islands made it into her list of 12 key priorities – an “important” priority – in her much anticipated speech in London.
But in insisting that the UK will leave any part of the customs unions which inhibits it from negotiating and signing its own trade agreements with the rest of the world, the prime minister also made it clear that some form of physical customs Border on the island – “as frictionless as possible” – may well be a price she is willing to pay.
And she was adamant that London alone will negotiate on behalf of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, albeit promising to listen to their ministers and to return to them all the powers ceded to Brussels.
May’s wish list hardly came as a surprise. Its main ingredients have been well-flagged for some time and , importantly, do not raise unreal expectations. It was general enough, in broad, brush strokes, not to provide too many hostages to fortune for her more militant eurosceptical backbenchers who will parse and deconstruct every hint at a treacherous U-turn. They will get to vote at the end, but again she promised no running commentary before that.
She would seek to control immigration – the key red line – but was careful not to talk of how, of quotas, or regional preferences. She would take the UK out – not even half in – of the single market, a hard Brexit: “Instead we seek the greatest possible access to it through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement .”
She responded to fears of a cliff edge departure, by suggesting instead of a transitional agreement one on phased withdrawal. And she promised to negotiate continued co-operation in areas like security, research and the fight against crime and terrorism.
Her commitment that “the days of Britain making vast [financial] contributions to the European Union every year will end.” was sufficiently ambiguous to suggest an awareness that, like Norway, there may also have to be a financial contribution.
The was some hardball too, some of which may not go down well with fellow member states: like the patronising suggestion that Brexit reflects a superior “attachment to accountable and democratic government”... a stronger “internationalist mindset” or commitment to “diversity within Europe” ...
And, responding to the suggestion that some want a “punitive deal that punishes Britain and discourages other countries from taking the same path”, May belligerently warned, like her chancellor on Monday, that the UK would be prepared to go it alone, slash corporate tax rates , revamp its economic model , cut access to the City – “I am clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”. Not the way to start a constructive dialogue.