Britain will leave the European Union’s single market and seek a new free trade deal with the bloc, Prime Minister Theresa May said Tuesday, in a critical speech that all but confirmed her intentions to pursue a so-called “hard Brexit.”
In the most significant speech of her prime ministership to date, May said she was seeking a “new and equal partnership” with the EU, “not anything that leaves us half-in, half-out.”
“We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. We do not seek to hold onto bits of membership as we leave,” she said.
She also committed to putting the final Brexit deal to a vote in parliament – and warned EU countries that seeking a deal that punished Britain for leaving would hurt them as well.
“Britain wants to remain a good friend and neighbor to Europe, but I know there are some voices calling for a punitive deal,” she said.
“That would be a case of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe, and it would not be the act of a friend.”
Since Britons narrowly voted to leave the European Union in a referendum in June, speculation has mounted over what the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the union will look like. On Tuesday, May – who succeeded David Cameron as the country’s leader in July – gave her clearest answer to date, outlining the key priorities her government will focus on in exit negotiations.
May’s Brexit shopping list
In her speech Tuesday, May outlined for the first time the key priorities her government will focus on in exit negotiations. As expected, she favors what commentators have labeled a “hard Brexit” – a complete rupture, with no half-measures, in order to fully restore Britain’s sovereignty and control of its borders.
Beyond leaving the single market, the government’s objectives include:
- Pursuing a free trade agreement with the European Union and new trade agreements with other countries
- Restoring Britain’s control of its own laws, including removing the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice
- Controlling the number of Europeans coming to Europe, while protecting the rights of the 3 million EU nationals in the UK, and the 1.2 million British citizens in the EU
- Continued cooperation and “practical” sharing of intelligence with European authorities to fight terrorism and crime
- Ensuring a smooth, orderly Brexit, with a phased implementation
May said that remaining in the EU’s single market – which allows the free movement of goods, services, and people between members – was not an option, as that would effectively mean “not leaving the EU at all.”
“Instead, we seek the greatest possible access to it through a new, comprehensive, bold, and ambitious free trade agreement. That agreement may take in elements of current single-market arrangements in certain areas.”
But May will likely face steady opposition from European leaders who have repeatedly said that Britain can not expect access to the single market without accepting the free movement of EU nationals into the UK.
Britain’s government has signaled it plans to pursue trade deals with other countries as it pivots from Europe toward the wider global economy after Brexit. Hopes are high that it can sign a critical deal with the United States, following U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s recent comments that he will move quickly to make such a deal a reality. May also said she will try to reach a free trade deal with New Zealand, as Britain looks to rebuild its historic economic ties with the Commonwealth nations.
Triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty
Talks between Britain and the 27 remaining members of the EU can only start once Britain triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – something May has said she wants to do by the end of March. Britain’s Supreme Court will rule in coming weeks whether parliament is required to vote on this step first.
The complex negotiations are expected to take two years.
Once the negotiations with the EU are complete, the deal will be put before both houses of parliament for a vote, May confirmed on Tuesday.
Asked what would happen if MPs voted against the deal, May said she was confident they would respect the wishes of the majority who voted for a Brexit. “I am sure the British parliament will want to deliver the views of the British people and respect the democratic decision that was taken.”
German foreign minister welcomes “a bit more clarity”
May’s speech was met with a cautiously positive response from Europe, with Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, saying it showed the UK was becoming “more realistic” about its prospects in negotiations.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter said in a statement he welcomed May’s efforts to create “a bit more clarity” about Britain’s expectations. He noted that she sought a positive and constructive partnership with the EU. “This is good,” he said.
British opposition politicians were less receptive. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn criticized what he called an implied threat to lower corporate taxes and turn Britain into “a bargain basement tax haven on the shores of Europe” in a bid to compete with the EU. Such a move, he said, would be “a threat to the British people’s jobs, services and living standards.”
Corbyn was also scathing of her decision to announce the plan outside of parliament, where she would have faced questions from MPs. “If she believes in parliamentary sovereignty, surely she should have been there,” he told Sky News.
Some Remain supporters have argued that while the public has voted to leave the European Union, it should have the opportunity to vote on what the final deal looks like, and have a say on whether the government pursues a “hard” or “soft” Brexit.
If May’s speech is any indication, that choice has already been made.