Theresa May's Brexit Plan: No Single Market, A Parliamentary Vote And A Warning To The EU
The prime minister confirmed the UK will leave the single market and warned EU leaders that punishing Britain would be a "calamitous act of self-harm".
Theresa May has said parliament will be asked to approve the UK's final Brexit deal as she set out her negotiating priorities before Britain begins the formal process of leaving the European Union.
The prime minister used a speech in central London to confirm she will adopt a "hard Brexit" approach that takes Britain out of the EU's single market, since the other option would be the equivalent of "not leaving the EU at all".
May said it was time to leave the single market, in part because Britons are not willing to accept the levels of immigration that would come with full membership.
However, she would immediately seek the "greatest possible access to it" in order to limit damage to the British economy, with the aim of having a new trade deal in place by the time the UK leaves in 2019. Although parliament will be given a vote, Downing Street made it clear they expected MPs to back the final deal.
Despite ruling out any "half in, half out" deal for Britain, May did leave open the possibility of some form of continued membership of the customs union, under which member states share a common external tariff for goods entering the EU from nonmember countries.
May said she did not want Britain to be part of the elements of the customs union that "prevent us from striking our own comprehensive trade agreements with other countries".
However, she continued: "But I do want us to have a customs agreement with the EU. Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the customs union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position. I have an open mind on how we do it. It is not the means that matter, but the ends."
May also threatened to aggressively cut British taxes – effectively becoming a European tax haven – if other EU nations attempted to punish the UK for leaving the group, which she said would be an act of "calamitous self-harm" by the remaining 27 states. "No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain," May said.
She also said she expects the UK to continue to pay for certain EU programmes, although the total amount paid to Brussels would be substantially lower than present rates.
The pound, which had fallen in advance of the speech, later recovered.
European leaders were not given advance details of the speech but European Council president Donald Tusk said the process was sad and surreal but welcomed the clarity and reiterated that negotiations would have to wait until the UK formally declared Article 50.
Sources in other EU governments told BuzzFeed News they weren't surprised by the prime minister's positions but welcomed the clarity provided by the speech. Some raised fears that the election of Donald Trump as US President could have strengthened May's hand and undermined unity among the remaining EU nations.
One EU diplomat told BuzzFeed News they found the tone upsetting, the economic threats ridiculous, and some parts confrontational while others unnecessary: "Why say that no deal would be better than a bad deal? That would be a disaster for Britain. Don't pretend that you have a big stick when you don't have one," they said.
However, the same official added that it was smart of May to clearly say the UK would be out of the single market and respected the EU's principles on the four freedoms of movement (of goods, services, people and capital) as this would remove lots of potentially contentious discussions from the table, and instead shift the focus of the negotiations away from the rules of the club. "Although some of these same issues are likely to still be subject of the negotiations", they added, the perspective would now be different: "it will no longer be seen as a negotiation between members of the same club".
Meanwhile, an EU head of government told BuzzFeed News they thought lots of the more controversial language used by May was simply positioning.
May's speech was made in the palatial surroundings of Lancaster House in central London, to an audience of British diplomatic staff. May, who campaigned for a Remain vote in last year's referendum, told them the UK had "voted for a brighter future for our country".
During the referendum campaign May had warned about the economic consequences of Britain leaving the single market. But she suggested some of the risks had been overstated.
The prime minister has so far revealed little about her negotiating strategy and said she would continue to keep the public in the dark if it meant she could get a better deal.
"This is not a game, or a time for opposition for opposition's sake, it is a crucial and sensitive negotiation which will define the success of our country for years," she said.
"Every stray word and every hyped-up media report is going to make it harder for us to get the right deal for Britain. However frustrating some people find it, the government will not be pressured into saying more than I believe it is in our national interest to say. Because it is not my job to fill column inches with daily updates, but to get the right deal for Britain."
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the speech showed May was "determined to use Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain basement tax haven on the shores of Europe" while Lib Dem leader Tim Farron described it as a "mixture of vague fantasies and toothless threats to our nearest neighbours".
Despite pledging an interim deal, she said she had no desire for the UK to be stuck with such an arrangement, which would be like "permanent political purgatory".
"It was no attempt to do harm to the EU itself, or to any of its remaining EU member states," she said of the referendum. "It was a vote to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy."
But at the heart of her speech was a focus on restricting levels of immigration to the UK that influenced almost every other aspect.
"The message from the public before and during the referendum campaign was clear," she said. "Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe."