BRUSSELS — Theresa May personally insisted that the words “ending of free movement of people” be added to the first page of the political declaration, the non-legally-binding part of the Brexit deal that sets out the framework for the future UK–EU relationship, BuzzFeed News has learned.
May demanded the specific drafting through the UK’s Brexit negotiating team, who let it be known the prime minister was insisting that the terms be added in a prominent position in the text.
Such an unusual and personal intervention on a mostly decorative detail — in the middle of delicately balanced negotiations packed with technical and complicated issues — was viewed in Brussels as a clear sign of the top issue that drives and defines her Brexit.
Terminating free movement has been May’s unshakable guide throughout the Brexit talks, ultimately shaping the overall agreement negotiated with the European Union now on the table — and it goes to the heart of how the prime minister interprets the 2016 referendum result.
Downing Street confirmed that the request came directly from May, and that she has said a number of times that ending free movement is a key priority to deliver on the result of the referendum.
Since the Brexit package was signed off at a special summit of EU leaders last month, ending free movement has been central to May’s ongoing pitch to get voters and MPs to back the deal. It has also featured at the very top of her government’s efforts to promote the agreement.
But May’s focus on that element has also meant she has had to drop other key aspirations, which she had repeatedly set as benchmarks of a successful agreement.
EU negotiators and diplomats have refused to include references to “frictionless trade” in the political declaration, for example, consistently pointing out that no such thing exists outside the single market and its four inseparable freedoms, including the freedom of movement of people.
And it has made the so-called backstop, the legally binding insurance policy to ensure that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland remains open in all circumstances after Brexit, which is now tearing her party and government apart, all the more important.
The EU and the leaders of its other 27 member states have made it repeatedly clear that they will not budge on British demands for a unilateral eject button from the backstop, nor acquiesce to Brexiteer cries to ditch the backstop altogether.
To achieve May’s goal of ending free movement, the UK must leave the EU’s single market — despite the government’s own analysis spelling out the dire economic consequences attached to this decision, and the friction and barriers that it will inevitably add to trade.
But EU sources have noted that the prime minister’s enthusiasm for putting an end to free movement has not always been matched by an equal dose of frankness when it comes to clearly spelling out to voters and MPs that the right to freely work, live, and retire anywhere in the 28-country bloc to is a two-way street that will see Britons lose those very same rights after Brexit.
Over the course of the two years since negotiations began, BuzzFeed News has asked numerous senior EU and European government officials if they could pinpoint the exact moment May’s path towards what was once called a hard Brexit was set.
Many of those officials, often without much hesitation, point to the prime minister’s ”citizens of nowhere” speech at the Conservative party conference in 2016, her first as party leader.
“Let’s state one thing loud and clear: We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration all over again,” May said.
The repercussions of the blueprint May sold the Tory party faithful in Birmingham two years ago, just a few months before triggering Article 50, continue to this day.