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Theresa May's Article 50 letter: what she said, and what she meant

Theresa May has set out her Brexit objectives in a speech. Stephen Bush explains the key sections.

Dear President Tusk,

On 23 June last year, the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

Translation: it’s not me, it’s 17 million other buggers. Don’t blame me, I voted to Remain.

But that Theresa May backed the status quo means two things. The first is that as Britain leaves the European Union, not a single living person to hold the office of Prime Minister sincerely believes that Brexit is a good idea. The second is that she semi-continually has to reassure the Conservative right that she is a Proper Goth. That’s one of the recurring themes of this letter.

 As I have said before, that decision was no rejection of the values we share as fellow Europeans. Nor was it an attempt to do harm to the European Union or any of the remaining member states. On the contrary, the United Kingdom wants the European Union to succeed and prosper.

Translation: please don’t destroy our economy.  The difficulty for the United Kingdom is that it’s in  both Britain and the European Union’s economic interests to continue to have a close a relationship as possible.

For the United Kingdom in general and Theresa May in particular, the economics and the politics are in aligned. If the economy goes to the wall, everyone will be poorer and May’s position is at risk.

But for the EU27, there’s a political imperative: to strengthen the European Union by demonstrating that exit comes at a price. That conflicts with the economics, yes, but no-one has lost money betting against economics as far as either British or EU politics are concerned, particularly where the two are related to one another.

So one important message from the British government has to be: our success is not your failure. We have no interest in triggering a rush to the exits. That’s another recurring message.

But May’s difficulty is that not everyone in her party likes this message, which is why you get this next bit:

Instead, the referendum was a vote to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe – and we want to remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent.

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom Parliament confirmed the result of the referendum by voting with clear and convincing majorities in both of its Houses for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. The Bill was passed by Parliament on 13 March and it received Royal Assent from Her Majesty The Queen and became an Act of Parliament on 16 March.

Translation: blah, blah, blah, I am a Proper Goth, honest. That Dido record was a gift from my mum. I haven’t even listened to it.

This letter sets out the approach of Her Majesty's Government to the discussions we will have about the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union and about the deep and special partnership we hope to enjoy – as your closest friend and neighbour – with the European Union once we leave. We believe that these objectives are in the interests not only of the United Kingdom but of the European Union and the wider world too.

Translation: seriously, Donald, we are not looking to destroy the EU. Did I mention that?

I would like to propose some principles that may help to shape our coming discussions, but before I do so, I should update you on the process we will be undertaking at home, in the United Kingdom.

Translation: Donald, I’m gonna get to you, but first I have to talk about some other things for the purpose of my domestic audience.

When it comes to the return of powers back to the United Kingdom, we will consult fully on which powers should reside in Westminster and which should be devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it is the expectation of the government that the outcome of this process will be a significant increase in the decision-making power of each devolved administration.

Translation: Alright, Nicola, I hear you.

Devolution is double-edged: for the Welsh government in particular, the loss of EU funding is likely going to result in heavy cuts. You can see why Conservative MPs in Wales would rather run against the Labour administration in Cardiff rather than the Tory one in London.

The United Kingdom wants to agree with the European Union a deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security cooperation. To achieve this, we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.

Translation: I want both a deal on withdrawal and a longstanding agreement on future partnership. This won’t happen. If you’re being charitable, this is a clever way of going into the negotiations with something to give up on. If you’re being uncharitable, it shows how deeply unprepared the British government is for how fraught and difficult negotiating trade agreements is.

If, however, we leave the European Union without an agreement the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms. In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened. In this kind of scenario, both the United Kingdom and the European Union would of course cope with the change, but it is not the outcome that either side should seek. We must therefore work hard to avoid that outcome.

Translation: “I know what you're thinking: Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

It is true to say that no deal would hurt both the United Kingdom and the EU27. However, the “cutting off your nose to spite your face” is apt here: it hurts like hell to cut off your nose and you’re never the same afterwards. But while you will see people without noses living successful lives, to date, no nose has managed to carry on without a person.

The bad news is that Britain is the nose in this analogy.

It is for these reasons that we want to be able to agree a deep and special partnership, taking in both economic and security cooperation, but it is also because we want to play our part in making sure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and able to lead in the world, projecting its values and defending itself from security threats. And we want the United Kingdom to play its full part in realising that vision for our continent.

This paragraph is doing a lot of things: reiterating that the British government wants to leave the European Union stronger not weaker, and setting out the outline of how the future relationship might look.

Now let’s get onto the real red meat:

“Since I became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom I have listened carefully to you, to my fellow EU Heads of Government and the Presidents of the European Commission and Parliament. That is why the United Kingdom does not seek membership of the single market: we understand and respect your position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible and there can be no "cherry picking".”

This paragraph is doing a lot of work. First, it is reassuring her fellow politicians and the EU’s institutions that she gets it and that Britain can’t be a member of the single market and opt out of the free movement of people. Secondly, she is telling every British politician who has suggested that a special deal or a “reformed free movement” is doable to STFU.

On this, she’s entirely correct. There is no economic imperative for the EU27 to abandon the free movement of people and while other EU politicians are experiencing Ukip-type uprisings, the biggest cause is opposition to refugees and hostility to Islam, not movement from the eastern bloc to Western Europe.  It’s a nonsense idea, not least because no-one has yet devised a persuasive reason why those nations with large emigrant populations would ever want to sign a deal limiting their people’s rights, but there you go.

 We also understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU: we know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We also know that UK companies will, as they trade within the EU, have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part – just as UK companies do in other overseas markets.

This is, once again, a paragraph with two audiences. Firstly, it’s a move away from the nonsense threats about “becoming a tax haven”. But it’s also a rebuke to the “leave the EU and slash red tape” brigade. The reality is that when you trade with other nations, your regulations are set de facto by whoever your most stringent buyer is. In Britain’s case, that will remain the EU. To use the phrase that Amber Rudd, now Home Secretary, used during the referendum campaign, we are switching from being a “rulemaker” to a “ruletaker”, but there is no future for the United Kingdom in which it can free itself of European regulation, or, at least, not one in which we sell anything at all to the nations of the European Union.
There is obvious complexity in the discussions we are about to undertake, but we should remember that at the heart of our talks are the interests of all our citizens. There are, for example, many citizens of the remaining member states living in the United Kingdom, and UK citizens living elsewhere in the European Union, and we should aim to strike an early agreement about their rights.

Theresa May is under pressure to domestically to guarantee the rights of EU citizens and this paragraph aims to do two things: firstly to reassure people back home that she will, and secondly to secure the same guarantee for British residents abroad.

There has been a lot of debate about whether or not unilaterally guaranteeing the rights of EU migrants here would put the status of British expatriates in jeopardy. I’ve written at greater length why I’m not sold on that here, and that May has essentially all-but-confirmed here that Britain will extend that guarantee to EU citizens living here highlights how much an opportunity was missed in not making a big generous offer in her first days as Prime Minister. There is no leverage in withholding guarantees that have already been made.
“We want to agree a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU, taking in both economic and security cooperation. We will need to discuss how we determine a fair settlement of the UK's rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the United Kingdom's continuing partnership with the EU.”

This outlines the Brexit deal that May wants, the shape of which I first revealed back in November 2016: we pay to play, essentially. By paying an outsized amount for the parts of EU co-operation the government wants to keep, they may secure the standard of single market access that the British economy needs to function.

But we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.

Again, May wants the future deal to be part of the exit process. No-one who knows anything about this process thinks that is likely. If you are a glass-half full kind of person, this is a deliberate ploy. If your glass is half empty, we are all going to hell in a handcart.

We should work together to minimise disruption and give as much certainty as possible
Investors, businesses and citizens in both the UK and across the remaining 27 member states

May now wants a transitional deal, a major breach with the Brexiteer ultras, though David Davis, who has quietly impressed many of his civil servants – I know, I’m as surprised as you – has flipped on this in private, having gone from being sceptical about the merits of a transitional deal to supportive, I’m told.

In particular, we must pay attention to the UK's unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland and the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland
One of the biggest areas with the potential for disaster is the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It’s hard to see how this could be done without bending some of the EU’s rules, but rules are not always rules in Brussels. There is agreement on all sides that a way forward needs to be found. That doesn’t necessarily mean there is one out there, particularly as May’s allies in Northern Ireland, the DUP, would likely resist the easiest workaround – that the island of Ireland remain in the customs union with customs checks at ports, not at the land border – but this the area where May has the best chance of success.

We should begin technical talks on detailed policy areas as soon as possible, but we should prioritise the biggest challenges

Basically, if you are a large bank or have business or personal interests in the Irish border, good news! You are likely to be well-served by this process. If you are a British citizen, married to an Italian, and living in France, I wouldn’t bet the farm on your domestic arrangements being looked after in this process.

We should continue to work together to advance and protect our shared European values
Perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe.

Translation: I’m just a girl, standing in front of a trade bloc, asking them to love her.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.