Speaking on the first day of the U.K. Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham Sunday, May looked beyond those in the hall and made it clear to those watching elsewhere in Europe that she would not even discuss the continuation of free movement after Britain’s exit from the EU.
May’s intervention on Sunday is the clearest indication yet that Britain is heading for a hard Brexit outside the European single market. In the battle between Brexit hardliners and Cabinet skeptics such as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, May appears have sided with the first group most closely associated with Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox.
If Brexit means anything, May told the Conservative Party conference, it has to mean the full repatriation of political power from Brussels. Anything less was unacceptable. “We are going to be a fully-independent, sovereign country,” May said. “A country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts.”
Brexit, May added, meant having “the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters, from how we label our food to the way in which we choose to control immigration.”
The upshot, if May is good to her word, is a U.K. completely extricated from the Brussels machine and outside the single market and its open borders to labor. In the upcoming Brexit negotiations the only thing left to discuss, according to the prime minister, is the terms on which Britain and Europe continue to trade.
After a summer in which she revealed little more than insisting “Brexit means Brexit” May’s speech was intended to draw a line under the debate about whether Britain would really make a clean break with Brussels. Senior political figures, from Nicolas Sarkozy to the Labour’s Party’s defeated leadership challenger Owen Smith, have raised the prospect of a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU.
May said she would begin the formal process of leaving the EU by the end of March 2017, firing the gun on a two year exit negotiation. She also announced that the government would introduce a Great Repeal Bill, annulling the 1972 European Communities Act which took Britain into the European Union. The bill, which will not come into force until the U.K. formally leaves the EU, would end the primacy of European law in the U.K.
The proposal, in effect, dares Labour and other pro-European MPs — who make up a majority of the House of Commons — to vote against the will of the electorate. If the government was defeated, it would almost certainly trigger a snap general election to give the prime minister a mandate to enact Brexit.
If MPs do vote the bill through, however, May will have a blank check to negotiate the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, with MPs already having given their assent to Brexit.
In May’s address to party activists, she insisted too many people had not accepted the result of the referendum and were beset by “muddled thinking” over the future relationship between Britain and the EU. The prime minister stressed repeatedly that the referendum result had been “clear” and her Government would not “question, quibble or backslide on what we have been instructed to do.”
The prime minister said there was “no such thing as a choice between ‘soft Brexit’ and ‘hard Brexit,” insisting this was a false dichotomy “propagated by people who, I am afraid to say, have still not accepted the result of the referendum.”
In rejecting talk of a “soft Brexit” May is all-but rejecting the compromise “Norway option” floated by some pro-Europeans that would see Britain remain in the single market but accept free movement and contributions to the EU budget. May’s claim that this did not, in turn, necessitate a “hard Brexit” is intended to calm fears that Britain will not be able to negotiate a Canadian-stye free trade agreement to take its place.
“The truth is that too many people are letting their thinking about our future relationship with the EU be defined by the way the relationship has worked in the past,” she said.
In an attempt to define Britain’s red lines in negotiations with Brussels, May said the upcoming talks would not be about “negotiating away all our sovereignty again.”
“It is not going to be about any of those matters over which the country has just voted to regain control. It is not, therefore, a negotiation to establish a relationship anything like the one we have had for the last forty years or more.
“It is going to be an agreement between an independent, sovereign United Kingdom and the European Union.”
The claim — a statement of the obvious in some regards — is designed to bury the prospect of an EU-lite arrangement in which some sovereignty is pooled in return for free trade. It is a nod to her MPs’ Thatcherite dream of an independent, free-market Britain trading openly with the world outside the EU.
In May’s brief opening speech to conference ahead of her main address on Wednesday, she dismissed claims there was a “trade-off” between controlling immigration and trading with Europe. “That is the wrong way of looking at things,” she insisted. It was a message her audience wanted to hear, but one also directed at Brussels: Britain wants a free-trade deal, not a messy single market compromise.
She called for a “mature, cooperative relationship” with EU built on free trade, saying she wanted British companies to have “the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the single market.” But she added: “Let me be clear. We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.”
May rejected the idea, advocated by hardline Eurosekptics in her party, of a snap Brexit and insisted that Britain would play by the rules while it remained an EU member. “Everything we do as we leave the EU will be consistent with the law and our treaty obligations,” she said.
She repeated a promise, first made in a newspaper interview Sunday, that Britain would invoke Article 50 before April 2017, thereby legally trigger the start of negotiations with Brussels.
Boris and I
Presenting a unified front with Brexit minister David Davis and new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, May sought to project an image of a self-assured U.K., confident of securing a deal from the EU that, while severing all political ties, would be in the economic interests of both.
“We joined a common market, an economic community,” Davis said in his speech. “We’ve never really been comfortable being part of what is in reality a political project. We’re now leaving that project. This is an opportunity not just to clear the air but to create a more comfortable relationship with you European neighbours that works better for all of us.”
Davis was followed by Johnson, whose speech sought to portray Britain as a “soft power superpower.” Johnson insisted that the U.K. would become a global champion of free trade outside the EU, but at the same time pledged to continue cooperation with the bloc on issues of mutual interest, such as sanctions against Russia, and anti-trafficking operations in the Mediterranean.
Author: Tom McTague and Charlie Cooper