Theresa May’s speech of 17 January 2017 was a classic May performance, mixing statements somewhere between a boast and a threat to give the idea that the UK would be looking to its own interests first, second and last, with suggestions which undermined the ‘Britain First’ message. Contrary to the many media reports welcoming it as giving clarity, it is, with the exception of the Single Market, a speech with a great deal of wriggle room not least over her acceptance of a transitional period and suggestion that the UK should remain attached to some unspecified EU projects. Here is some of the ‘Britain First’ rhetoric:
“Not partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out. We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave. That means taking control of our own affairs, as those who voted in their millions to leave the European Union demanded we must. So we will take back control of our laws and bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain. Leaving the European Union will mean that our laws will be made in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. And those laws will be interpreted by judges not in Luxembourg but in courts across this country. Because we will not have truly left the European Union if we are not in control of our own laws. But I must be clear. Britain wants to remain a good friend and neighbour to Europe. Yet I know there are some voices calling for a punitive deal that punishes Britain and discourages other countries from taking the same path. That would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe. And it would not be the act of a friend. Britain would not – indeed we could not – accept such an approach. And while I am confident that this scenario need never arise – while I am sure a positive agreement can be reached – I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.”
Balanced against the Britain First rhetoric were statements which directly or by implication undermined the idea that the UK would be truly sovereign. Around a miasma of waffle the details May gave allowed for a large amount of wriggle room. Her “I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain” is meaningless because she has never properly defined what a “bad deal” would be. The only thing which could be said to be certain (in the sense that it was not covered with overt qualifications) is that the UK will not be joining the Single Market. However, even with that seemingly unequivocal statement it is important to understand that the ground which the Single Market covers, including freedom of movement, could be brought back in part by whatever agreement, if any, is concluded between the UK and the EU.
Remaining attached to the EU
A good example of the lack of clarity is May’s rejection of the membership of the Customs Union, but leaves the way open for the UK to become a semi detached member, viz:
“…I do not want Britain to be part of the Common Commercial Policy and I do not want us to be bound by the Common External Tariff. These are the elements of the Customs Union that prevent us from striking our own comprehensive trade agreements with other countries. 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. And those ends are clear: I want to remove as many barriers to trade as possible. And I want Britain to be free to establish our own tariff schedules at the World Trade Organisation, meaning we can reach new trade agreements not just with the European Union but with old friends and new allies from outside Europe too.”
May also wants to keep open the possibility of the UK continuing to contribute money to EU programmes, viz:
“[…] because we will no longer be members of the Single Market, we will not be required to contribute huge sums to the EU budget. There may be some specific European programmes in which we might want to participate. If so, and this will be for us to decide, it is reasonable that we should make an appropriate contribution. But the principle is clear: the days of Britain making vast contributions to the European Union every year will end. […] we will also welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives. With the threats to our common security becoming more serious, our response cannot be to cooperate with one another less, but to work together more. I therefore want our future relationship with the European Union to include practical arrangements on matters of law enforcement and the sharing of intelligence material with our EU allies.”
Then there is immigration, viz:
“Britain is an open and tolerant country. We will always want immigration, especially high-skilled immigration, we will always want immigration from Europe, and we will always welcome individual migrants as friends. But the message from the public before and during the referendum campaign was clear: Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe. And that is what we will deliver. Fairness demands that we deal with another issue as soon as possible too. We want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in other member states, as early as we can. I have told other EU leaders that we could give people the certainty they want straight away, and reach such a deal now.“
This is a woolly commitment which could mean virtually anything as to how many EEA migrants could come to the UK, both skilled and unskilled. Large numbers of skilled people will give British employers no incentive to train our own people and the fact May does not rule out unskilled or low skilled workers suggests there will be large numbers of these.
As for the position of UK nationals living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK, if an agreement is made to simply guarantee the rights of UK nationals and EU citizens in the countries which they are living, then the UK will be losers because the benefits which most countries within the EU offer are much less generous than those offered in the UK to EU citizens. Health service provision is the outstanding example of this. There is also the question of how honest each EU country will be when it comes to allowing UK nationals access to their benefits after Brexit. For some years there have been reports of the Spanish making access to their health services by UK nationals difficult, and since the British vote to leave the EU Spain has been trying to get the UK to pay the medical costs of UK nationals living in Spain.
Perhaps most immediately disturbing is May’s commitment to a transmission period with different periods of transition, viz:.
“I want us to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article Fifty process has concluded. From that point onwards, we believe a phased process of implementation, in which both Britain and the EU institutions and member states prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us will be in our mutual self-interest. This will give businesses enough time to plan and prepare for those new arrangements. This might be about our immigration controls, customs systems or the way in which we cooperate on criminal justice matters. Or it might be about the future legal and regulatory framework for financial services. For each issue, the time we need to phase-in the new arrangements may differ. Some might be introduced very quickly, some might take longer. And the interim arrangements we rely upon are likely to be a matter of negotiation.But the purpose is clear: we will seek to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge, and we will do everything we can to phase in the new arrangements we require as Britain and the EU move towards our new partnership.”
Any of the items mention under the heading of Remaining attached to the EU might have a specious rationality about them, but they all offer considerable opportunities to prevent a genuine Brexit simply by their multiplicity.
Part II of this analysis will be published this weekend.