Theresa May sets out ‘hard facts’ in major Brexit speech

By: | Published: March 3, 2018 12:36 AM

Britian's Prime Minister Theresa May today set out some “hard facts” that must be faced by both the UK and the European Union (EU) as they negotiate an ambitious and unprecedented future economic partnership with each other.

Theresa May, brexit, britain prime minster, free trade agreement, UK, European Union, london, Europe, Conservative partyThe British PM once again ruled out a “hard border” in Northern Ireland and indicated that a special customs arrangement would achieve that goal. (Reuters)

Britian’s Prime Minister Theresa May today set out some “hard facts” that must be faced by both the UK and the European Union (EU) as they negotiate an ambitious and unprecedented future economic partnership with each other. In a much-anticipated speech in London on the contours of post-Brexit arrangements with the EU, she admitted the “complexity” of the task ahead and called on the 27-member economic bloc to look beyond its “off-the-shelf” offers for a trade deal with the UK to achieve the “broadest and deepest possible” free trade agreement (FTA) than anywhere in the world. “I want to be straight with people – because the reality is that we all need to face up to some hard facts. We are leaving the single market. Life is going to be different. In certain ways, our access to each other’s markets will be less than it is now,” May said.

“The [European] Commission has suggested that the only option available to the UK is an ‘off the shelf’ model. But, at the same time, they have also said that in certain areas none of the EU’s third country agreements would be appropriate… we both need to face the fact that this is a negotiation and neither of us can have exactly what we want,” she warned. Laying out some “pragmatic and common sense” steps towards achieving close cooperation between the UK and the EU after Brexit, the Britain Prime Minister called for a “tailored” approach that meets the needs of both economies. In a pointed reference to one of the EU’s oft-repeated accusations hurled at the UK of trying to cherry-pick aspects in its trade negotiation, the British PM stressed that every free trade agreement has varying market access depending on the respective interests of the countries involved.

“If this is cherry-picking, then every trade arrangement is cherry-picking… What would be cherry-picking would be if we were to seek a deal where our rights and obligations were not held in balance. And I have been categorically clear that is not what we are going to do,” she said. Associate membership of some EU agencies such as those that are critical for the chemicals, medicines and aerospace industries – the European Medicines Agency, the European Chemicals Agency, and the European Aviation Safety Agency and a bespoke customs partnership were among some of the options offered in her speech, which would be watched keenly in Brussels to seek clarity on issues to move Brexit talks on to the next level.

The British PM once again ruled out a “hard border” in Northern Ireland and indicated that a special customs arrangement would achieve that goal. Her repeated reference to this point during the speech was aimed at countering the EU’s publication of a first draft of a legal document earlier this week which suggested Northern Ireland would remain within the EU’s Customs Union while the rest of the UK may not. This has become one of the most contentious issues in the negotiation as UK territory Northern Ireland must resolve its border relationship with EU member-country Ireland post-Brexit.

“We have ruled out any physical infrastructure at the border, or any related checks and controls. But it is not good enough to say, ‘We won’t introduce a hard border; if the EU forces Ireland to do it, that’s down to them’. We chose to leave; we have a responsibility to help find a solution,” she said, stressing on her commitment to ensure Brexit does not “damage the integrity” of the United Kingdom.

Theresa May, whose speech had to be moved from Newcastle to Mansion House in the heart of London’s financial district due to extreme weather conditions caused by days of heavy snowfall, opened her speech by paying tribute to the emergency services working round the clock to help stranded commuters. The crux of her speech, titled ‘Our Future Partnership’, revolved around “five tests” – implementing the result of the June 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit; reaching an enduring future partnership that stands the test of time; protecting jobs and security; delivering an outcome that is consistent with creating an outward-looking Britain; and bringing the country together.

She set out the UK’s goals as wanting freedom to negotiate trade agreements with other countries around the world, take back control of its laws and have “as frictionless a border as possible” with the EU. “My message to our friends in Europe is clear. We know what we want. We understand your principles. We have a shared interest in getting this right. So let’s get on with it,” she said.

The UK is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, but it wants a transition period lasting around two years after that, intended to smooth the way to the future post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU. While there have been some disagreements over this implementation period in the past few weeks, the British PM claimed that both sides were close to agreeing on the terms of the implementation period.

“Of course, some points of difference remain – but I am confident these can be resolved in the days ahead,” she said. The tone of her speech was conciliatory, aimed at hard Brexiters within her own Conservative party as well as tough-talking EU diplomats. It marks a crucial point in the Brexit negotiations, which must move on to thrashing out details of a future relationship later this month.

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