Prime minister gives tough speech outlining governments 12 priorities for Brexit negotiations as EU leaders warn that country is heading for hard Brexit
Theresa May warned European leaders that the UK is prepared to crash out of the EU if she cannot negotiate a reasonable exit deal in a speech where her tough talking rhetoric prompted key figures in Brussels to say that the country was on track for a hard Brexit.
The prime minister told EU counterparts that any attempt to inflict a punitive outcome on the UK would be an act of calamitous self-harm because it would then slash taxes to attract companies from across the world, in a one-hour address intended to spell out the countrys negotiating strategy.
Although May said that the UK could be the EUs best friend if the article 50 divorce talks went well, she also said she was prepared to walk away. 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, she said.
Eurosceptic ministers and backbenchers were quick to praise May, but her remarks also triggered a backlash from lead European parliament negotiator on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt. Britain has chosen a hard Brexit. Mays clarity is welcome but the days of UK cherry-picking and Europe a la cart [sic] are over, he said.
Verhofstadt also delivered a tough response to Mays point about business on his Twitter account. Threatening to turn the UK into a deregulated tax heaven will not only hurt British people it is a counterproductive negotiating tactic, he said, urging May to consider the concerns of 48% who voted remain.
Speaking at Lancaster House, London, the prime minister also committed to give both houses of parliament a vote on the final Brexit deal prompting the pound to soar although Downing Street was clear that the alternative to a negotiated exit would be defaulting onto the higher tariffs of World Trade Organisation rules.
Setting out her governments 12 priorities for crunch negotiations with the EU 27, May made it clear that the UK would:
- Take back control of borders, arguing that record levels of migration had put pressure on public services
- No longer be under the jurisdiction of the European court of justice, because we will not have truly left the European Union if we are not in control of our own laws
- Explicitly rule out membership of the EUs single market because that is incompatible with migration controls
- Not stay in the customs union, but try to strike a separate deal as an associate member to make trading as frictionless as possible
- Not be required to contribute huge sums to the EU budget but simply pay towards specific programmes
- But would seek a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the EU, and build trading relationships with countries beyond Europe as part of a global Britain strategy
Prominent Brexit supporters said the speech represented a clean break from the EU. Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, who led the Leave campaign, praised a fantastic speech on Facebook. He has been keen for the prime minister to make a clean break with the EU, rather than seeking to remain inside the single market.
The former Ukip leader Nigel Farage said: I can hardly believe that the PM is now using the phrases and words that Ive been mocked for using for years. Real progress.
However, remain supporters in the Conservative party insisted the plan for Britains future economic relationship with the EU amounted to single market lite. Anna Soubry, who is a key remain supporter, welcomed the language and tone of the speech.
What I am agitated about is that I believe that immigration benefits British business and I think we are making a serious and grave mistake by thinking we can cut the number of migrant workers without damaging our economy, she added.
This position was echoed by Labours Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, who argued that May was right to attempt to replicate the attributes of the single market in a trade deal.
Starmer said May had committed to something that would mimic full membership. The ball is in her court to deliver. We will hold her to that, he said. However, he and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were deeply critical of the threat to slash taxes, which Corbyn said would turn Britain into a bargain basement tax haven on the shores of Europe.
The prime minister said she also wanted to secure the rights of the 3 million-plus EU citizens who live in the UK, suggesting that one or two countries, thought to include Germany, had refused to negotiate an early agreement over the issue.
May said she would accept a phased process of implementation of the Brexit agreement after 2019 but not an unlimited transitional deal that could plunge Britain into permanent political purgatory.
She also called on leave and remain campaigners to put the divisions of the hard-fought referendum behind them. The victors have the responsibility to act magnanimously. The losers have the responsibility to respect the legitimacy of the outcome, she said, claiming that business, MPs and the public wanted to get on with it.
Calling for unity in the UK, May said: Because this is not a game or a time for opposition for oppositions sake. It is a crucial and sensitive negotiation that will define the interests and the success of our country for many years to come. And it is vital that we maintain our discipline.
The prime minister attempted to strike a conciliatory tone with the EU by promising to be a best friend to the bloc after Brexit. But she also claimed the EU had been too unbending in respecting the needs of a diverse set of nations, and too inflexible for British voters. She urged European leaders to learn from Brexit by not tightening a vice-like grip that ends up crushing into tiny pieces the very things you want to protect.
After delivering her speech, May spoke to Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the presidents of the European commission and council, as well as to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and French president, Francois Hollande. A Downing Street spokesperson said she had told them that she understood Britain could not remain in the single market but wanted a deal in everyones interests, and said they had welcomed clarity and that Tusk was looking forward to negotiating in a spirit of goodwill.
Tusk also said it marked the start of a sad process but said that at least May was now being realistic.
Other European figures who reacted to the speech included the Czech Europe minister, Tom Prouza, who tweeted: UKs plan seems a bit ambitious. Trade as free as possible, full control on immigration… where is the give for all the take?
The Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, added that Britain was not just leaving the EU but also the common market and everything. It appears that Theresa Mays intention through negotiations with the EU at the end of March is a hard Brexit a very hard Brexit indeed.
One of the biggest challenges for May will be the Irish question. A statement from the Irish government welcomed Mays commitment to retain close relations with the EU, saying it was an ambition they shared. It said it was ready to intensify engagement with other EU countries, adding: Ireland will negotiate from a position of strength, as one of the 27 member states firmly in, and committed to, the European Union.
Sterling was up nearly 3% to around 1.238 US dollars following Mays speech. It also rose 2% against the euro at 1.158.
Some Labour backbenchers were despairing about their partys response, urging their leadership not to throw in the towel and give up on the prospect of membership of a hugely important economic market.
The former shadow chancellor, Chris Leslie, said Labour couldnt provide May with an alibi for her hard Brexit plan.
We should be trying to salvage membership of the single market but to throw in the towel and not even try to stay a member of the single market is sacrificing Britains economic future, he said, arguing that some EU countries might accept reforms towards managed migration.
Italy, Greece, Germany might think about amending that fourth pillar and not to even attempt to ask them is waving the white flag. This is a massively important market we need a bit of fight.
He is planning to lay down an amendment calling for a better deal if the government is forced by the Supreme court to publish an act of parliament before triggering article 50.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, said it was wrong that there would be no referendum on the final deal. The people voted for departure, they should be given a vote on the destination. This is a theft of democracy.
Downing Street sources said the prime minister had discussed the speech with both the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh administrations on Tuesday morning. But despite these conversations, May received an immediate rebuke from Nicola Sturgeon who warned the plan could be economically catastrophic.
Claiming that May was being driven by the obsessions of the hard right of the Tory party, Sturgeon argued that her demands for a special deal for Scotland were not being listened to.
Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/17/prime-minister-vows-to-put-final-brexit-deal-before-parliament