Theresa May’s speech provides an opportunity to move forward
Justin Protts, 17 January 2017
Finally, Brexit means Brexit. After months of criticism about her approach to Brexit, the Prime Minister made clear to the country the path she is planning to take in her approach to Brexit. The vote for change will mean the UK will no longer be a member of the single market and will no longer be subject to the common external tariff.
For many observers, what Theresa May announced today as her twelve-point approach to the negotiations is what was expected, given what ministers and spokespeople for the government have said over the last few months. However, she provided significantly more clarity about membership of the customs union, arguing for continued unrestricted trade in some form of customs agreement, though not at the cost of an independent UK tariff schedule. Despite the differing views as to whether the UK should have voted to leave the EU or should have tried to remain in the single market, this high-profile speech moves the UK into the next stage of the debate and will hopefully prove to be a catalyst that allows the country to unify around a single approach.
For those who have maintained calls for membership of the single market, via the European Economic Area, this speech will likely be a blow as it all but eliminates any chance of the UK staying in the single market. And for those who have called for the UK to remain a member of the EU’s customs union, this speech all but eliminates any chance of full membership, as the Prime Minister has made clear that the UK needs to be free to strike comprehensive trade deals with new trading partners around the globe. Though this will no doubt frustrate and upset those who wished to remain a member of the single market and customs union, the clarity allows efforts to focus on ensuring the best deal for the United Kingdom within a relatively defined scope.
It means instead of asking what compromise on free movement would we be willing to accept for single market membership, the debate will now be – what immigration policy should the UK pursue post-Brexit? Should the UK (which it should) grant EU citizens currently living in the UK the permanent right to stay?
Instead of arguing about the benefits or costs of a customs union, the debate will be – what sort of trade agreements should the UK seek with the EU? What sort of trade agreements should the UK seek in preparation for leaving the EU? What will be the relationship with countries with which the UK currently has trade agreements through the EU?
Instead of arguing about the importance of the single market to services, the debate will now be – what deal should we strike to ensure the best opportunities for the UK services market outside the single market? What can the UK do post-Brexit to ensure the UK financial services maintain global prominence?
If this speech is successful it will finally shift the debate away from the acrimonious debates over single market membership and the customs union, that have continued in the same vein as the debates over membership during the referendum, and towards a constructive policy-focused process. For some this will be pursing trade liberalisation, for some it will be pursuing protections for UK agriculture. For some a low-tax and regulatory environment, for some ensuring and enhancing social protections. For some a fair immigration system, for some a restrictive immigration system.
But the point is, whoever you are, Brexit is no longer an issue of trade-offs for membership of this or that. It provides an opportunity to move forward and focus on the details of what we want the UK to be as a nation independent of the European Union.