May’s vision for Brexit fails to see the big picture

Mark Leonard speaks with Tom Nuttall, The Economist's Charlemagne columnist, about Theresa May's Brexit speech. 

We now know Theresa May’s Brexit objectives: leave the single market and the customs union, have total control of migration from Europe, and significantly reduce payments to the EU budget. Two fields of negotiation opened up beyond the trade deal; first, the question whether certain sectors of the British economy (finance, cars, and aerospace in particular) might get a special relationship with the single market; second, the nature of any transitional arrangement to allow for a progression from membership to past membership. On the last point, my discussions with Tory MPs show that there is a significant paranoia of being stuck in a limbo between membership and non-membership. This means that any transitional deal would need to be designed in a way that ensured that all transitional agreements run out after a specific time and that after the 2020 election, the UK would be out completely.


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With regard to the content there were no huge surprises. May’s speech showed a clear hierarchy of priorities: first comes the unity of the Tory party, then the wish to stop migration and end ECJ jurisdiction – and only after that come Britain’s economic interests. Had she announced this right after the vote on 23 June there would have been a national outcry. But by now there has been a gradual erosion of expectation and rise of resignation. Over the last months, we have seen a big development among pro-remain MPs on free movement and the single market, with Labour MPs arguing for managed migration to secure free trade deals. What was striking in the speech was that co-operation on crime and terrorism – indeed, the entire foreign and security policy dimension – was barely mentioned and was very clearly an afterthought.

May’s tone was hard, which many around the EU took notice of. She may not ask much of the EU – she was clear in not wanting a special status that would mean difficult negotiations and a back-and-fourth between Britain and the EU – but she certainly seemed ready to show her claws if necessary.

May has said her aim is to make Britain: 1. stronger, 2. fairer, 3. more united, and 4. more out-ward looking. But an unkind observer might comment that that is harder to achieve if you:

  1. Shrink the UK economy by leaving the single market and the customs union;
  2. Threaten to establish a low-tax economy and begin an open rivalry with other EU countries, as Phillip Hammond threatened in his interview with the German Welt am Sonntag;
  3. Create constitutional crises in Northern Ireland and Scotland;
  4. Put the pursuit of trade deals above all foreign policy. Some recent examples include Boris Johnson’s refusing to take part in the informal Foreign Minister meeting on Donald Trump’s election and the way Britain criticized Kerry and stood aside from the long-standing goal of a two-state solution. Many worry that similar behavior may soon be displayed regarding the Paris climate deal. 

Most worrying about the speech is that it became clear that underlying Theresa May’s Brexit plans is a conviction that the world will remain as it is, which allows the government to have as a sole goal the maximization of its own gains. There is no awareness that the election of Trump and the general unravelling of the liberal order is changing the circumstances that are underlying the negotiations. The election of Donald Trump has put all the above convictions in question, as I have argued in the past.

To make sense of the speech and what Brexit means in a Trump world, I talk to Tom Nuttall, The Economist’s Charlemagne columnist, and Ulrike Franke, researcher at ECFR. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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