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22 September 2017

Theresa May’s Brexit speech showed the UK is still guilty of wishful thinking

The Prime Minister is demanding a third way that the EU has repeatedly ruled out. 

By George Eaton

Theresa May’s Brexit speech largely consisted of her repeatedly bowing to the inevitable. The Prime Minister accepted that the UK would need a transition period of “around two years” during which it would respect the “existing structure of EU rules and regulations”. The notion that Britain could leave the EU and negotiate a new trading relationship by March 2019 was always a fantasy (albeit one indulged by cabinet ministers such as David Davis and Liam Fox). Though May maintained in the subsequent Q&A that “no deal was better than a bad deal” (a line absent from her speech), no one now believes she is sincere. 

May also said what she should have said long ago to EU citizens in the UK: “We want you to stay; we value you; and we thank you for your contribution to our national life”. Had the Prime Minister said as much immediately after entering No10, she would have earned valuable good will from Remainers and EU member states. In order to maintain existing citizens’ rights, May conceded that UK courts should “take into account the judgments of the European Court of Justice”, a retreat from her earlier absolutist position. 

The Prime Minister continued her repair mission by withdrawing the UK’s threat to end security co-operation with the EU (as issued in the Article 50 letter). Compared to March of this year, when May dreamed of winning the first Conservative landslide since 1987, she is a humbled and chastened leader. The impasse in the Brexit talks has only heightened the need for emollience.

The EU, May promised, would suffer no budgetary shortfall from Britain’s departure. “The UK will honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership,” she vowed. So much for Boris Johnson’s “go whistle”.

But May’s speech was weakest where it needed to be strongest: on Britain’s future relationship with Europe. The Prime Minister rejected permanent single market membership, or the “Norway option”, on the grounds that the UK would become a rule taker, rather than a rule maker. But she further dismissed a Canada-style free trade deal as an unacceptable “restriction on our mutual market access”. For May, Norway-Canada is a false dichotomy. But in his pre-emptive speech yesterday, EU negotiator Michel Barnier maintained the exact opposite.

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“We can do so much better than this,” May insisted, calling for Brussels to “be creative as well as practical in designing an ambitious economic partnership”. But the lack of detail and clarity revealed this to be a hope, rather than an expectation. And while Canada’s free trade deal took seven years to negotiate, Britain has given itself just two years to achieve a superior agreement (how reckless the triggering of Article 50 in March 2017 now looks).

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May, who campaigned for Remain, and is constrained by her fiercely Eurosceptic party, repeatedly sought to disguise the UK’s predicament. But she could not disguise the grim truth: Britain is hoping for the best and unprepared for the worst.