"No deal is better than a bad deal" - Six things we learned from Theresa May's big Brexit speech

 
Mark Sands
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Theresa May said her plan to quit the EU would involve 12 key objectives, and while some of those may be broader than others, there were still plenty of interesting developments.

Speaking at Lancaster House today, the Prime Minister gave an outline of her hopes for Brexit for the first time - so what did we learn?

Single Market, no. Customs union, maybe.

Both Theresa May and her chancellor Philip Hammond have today ruled the UK out of remaining a member of the Single Market.

This had been regularly hinted at by Downing Street, but today May went further than ever, stating that remaining a member would mean complying with the rules, without being able to contribute, and keeping the UK within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

"It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all," she said.

"And that is why both sides in the referendum campaign made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to leave the Single Market."

Customs union membership remains a little more uncertain. Remaining inside requires the UK to maintain a common tariff on imports from outside the EU, but May said she wanted to keep European trade "as frictionless as possible.

"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," she said. "I have an open mind on how we do it. It is not the means that matter, but the ends."

Businesses will get a "phased" transition

May promised to avoid a "cliff-edge" transition to Brexit, stressing she hopes to have reached a deal within the two year Article 50 process.

The Prime Minister has already said she will begin Brexit talks by the end of March, and today she reiterated that the government does not want to extend that process beyond Spring 2019.

"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," she said.

Parliament will get a vote on the final deal

Both the House of Commons and the more Europhile House of Lords will be offered a vote on the deal secured by May in her negotiations with the EU.

Branding the move an effort to provide "certainty", she said: "I can confirm today that the government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force."

The promise means the Prime Minister's new terms with the EU could be rejected. But, quizzed on what that would mean after her speech, May said only that she expected parliament would back it.

May isn't against ALL migration to the UK

The Prime Minister has made controls over EU migration the core of her response to the summer Brexit vote, leading some business voices to raise concerns over their ability to recruit European workers.

Hammond had already made some conciliatory noises in front of the Treasury committee last year, and today saw May stress that the UK should remain "a magnet" for the best workers around the world.

While she maintained that "when the numbers get too high, public support for the system falters" - the government is retaining a sub-100k target for net migration - May added that openness to international talent "must remain one of this country’s most distinctive assets".

The PM backs free trade...

As far back as last September, May was saying that the UK should serve as a champion for free trade around the globe.

Today she vowed to continue to push that agenda - calling for tariff-free trade with the European Union after Brexit, May cited the example of financial services as an area in which "it makes no sense to start from scratch" when it comes to establishing cross-border business rules.

That could work well with EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier's own comments in favour of a "special relationship" between Europe and the City.

...but she also talks tough

For all that optimism, May wasn't afraid to wield a little threat today.

A "punitive" Brexit deal would be "an act of calamitous self-harm" for Europe, she said, adding that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal".

Failing to secure agreement with the 27 EU member states would see the UK default to World Trade Organisation trading rules, and May repeated the message that she would be willing to cut tax rates, and "change the basis of Britain's economic model".

She added that failure to offer good terms on Single Market access could see European firms blocked from accessing the City of London, and put at risk exports worth £290bn every year, with Europe's automotive, energy, food and drink, chemical, pharmaceuticals and agricultural sectors likely to suffer.

"These sectors employ millions of people around Europe. And I do not believe that the EU’s leaders will seriously tell German exporters, French farmers, Spanish fishermen, the young unemployed of the Eurozone, and millions of others, that they want to make them poorer, just to punish Britain and make a political point," she said.

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