Grave Brexpectations: May’s threat to the EU
On Tuesday (17 January), in anticipation of Theresa May’s speech, the Sun made reference to “Great Brexpectations,” whereas the Daily Mail’s headlines read, “Theresa’s New Free Britain.” But, is Brexit going to be this simple? And what is this new free Britain going to look like? Farage and Gove, perhaps, gave us an idea of this after both of them run to father Trump, who promised to strike a “quick” deal with the UK. But at what cost? As Lord Mandelson put it on Tuesday on the Today programme, with the UK no longer being a member of the EU, “Britain would have little power to resist the imposition of US demands.” Not only that, but, in terms of trade, the UK would have to abide to “US technical standards rather than the other way round.” I wouldn’t call this freedom. Not to mention, that the UK’s biggest trade partners are European.
While everyone on the Brexiteer camp is congratulating the PM on her uncompromising position on controlling immigration and breaking from the EU single market, the naïve euphoria of Brexiteers will soon dissipate into that harsh reality of a hangover that Britain might not be able to shake off. The president of the European council, reacting to May’s speech, called it a “sad process, surrealistic times.”
Key points from May’s speech: “I have a plan”
May’s speech was given at Lancaster House, a Foreign office mansion in Central London, with golden interiors, not unlike those of the Trump Tower. With her characteristic style of using vacuous language lacking any tangible evidence, May’s speech caused indignation among politicians in the UK and EU.
Particularly, since last year, the Conservative party’s pro-referendum promises included guarantees of staying in the single market, something that reassured many pro-Leave voters and shaped their decision to vote leaving the EU. The Conservative Party Manifesto 2015 clearly states that “We will protect Britain’s economy.” “We are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: yes to the Single Market. Yes to turbo-charging free trade. Yes to working together where we are stronger together than alone” (page 72-3 of The Conservative Party Manifesto). All these promises seem to have evaporated, despite that back then the Conservatives were adamant about not jeopardising access to the single market and recognising what a “disadvantage” would be to the UK to leave the single market.
In her speech, May reiterated that the UK wants to remain a “friend”… with benefits: “I must be clear. Britain wants to remain a good friend and neighbour to Europe. Yet I know there are some voices calling for a punitive deal that punishes Britain and discourages other countries from taking the same path. That would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe. And it would not be the act of a friend.”
Her speech outlined certain objectives without explaining how these could be achieved:
• May doesn’t want the UK to stay in the single market, but she will seek “the greatest possible access through a new, comprehensive and bold free trade agreement”. She said that she does want a customs agreement with the EU and tariff-free access to EU markets, but this will probably mean negotiating individual sector deals for key businesses. She also added that there will be a special deal for the City of London and its financial services.
• Control of immigration: “We will get control over number of people coming to Britain form the EU.”
• A transitional deal: Being “in no one’s interests to have a cliff-edge”, May talked about an agreement with an “implementation period”, but one which wouldn’t be lengthy and a “permanent purgatory.”
• She said that MPs would be able to vote on leaving the EU and decide on the final deal agreed between the UK and EU.
EU might turn out to be a Bad Santa
What stands out from May’s speech is her decision to abandon any possibility of fighting for the single market before even starting any negotiations with the EU. The lack of tactical and diplomatic grace, has left the UK in a fragile position, while enabling the EU to remain unwavering in its own positions.
Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said that is “good” that May has sketched out her ideas, but their line remains the same: “negotiations will only begin when Great Britain has officially announced its desire to leave.”
The problem with Theresa May’s position is the unbending belief that the European Union should gift us all our demands. A deal is the result of negotiations, and May’s speech sounds like a spoilt child’s letter to Santa.
The British Chamber of Commerce’s director general, Adam Marshall, said that her speech didn’t change anything. He stressed exactly this point, that the result of negotiations is the important outcome and not your bid:
In business, what you achieve in a negotiation - not what you bid for - is what really matters. The Brexit process is no different. While
businesses now have a clearer sense of the prime minister’s top-line priorities, they will come away from her speech knowing little
more about the likely outcome of the Brexit negotiations than they did yesterday. The simple fact is that businesses all across the UK
are carrying on. Directly-affected companies are being pragmatic, and are preparing for a range of possible outcomes.
May repeated that Brexit is the will of the people and this is an opportunity to “embrace the world.” But her Brexit objectives are evidently not the will of the people. She said: “the British people voted for change. They voted to shape a brighter future for our country. They voted to leave the European Union and embrace the world.” A statement like this is, however, dismissive of the EU, whose fundamental principles are based on, and encourage, freedom of movement and goods with other European countries. Being a member of the EU has never deterred a country from participating in international trade or being a global power.
More importantly, the people who voted to leave the EU in the UK referendum, didn’t vote to leave the single market. The question was about remaining in the EU, not losing access to the single market. As the Labour party pointed out, May’s speech contradicts the 2015 Conservative manifesto in which the Tories promised to “safeguard British interests in the single market.” During the campaign, in April last year, May warned that leaving the EU would make life “considerably harder”. She also said that the new deals that we will negotiate with the EU, might not be as good as the ones which “we enjoy now.”
I want…I want…I want…
Theresa May’s speech reminded us of Trump’s speeches. Using “big” words like “bold” and “ambitious”, she assured us that she will secure agreements with the EU that will guarantee a fairer and more global Britain. But her constant “I want” sounded too naïve. “We want the EU to be a success,” and “we want the same for Britain.” But as Pete Wishart from the SNP noticed, this sounded more like a threat to the EU: “Don’t do what’s in your interest or I’ll ruin the UK even further.” This was clear in what was also perceived by many European officials as a “threat” and a “blackmail”: to turn Britain into a low-tax haven, if the UK was denied access to the single market.
But her speech satisfied Brexiteers and Ukip supporters, while it made things more difficult for Nicola Sturgeon, who might be pressing for a further Scottish independence referendum. As European officials are warning that Brexit will only “hurt British people,” and as many British citizens who voted to leave feel betrayed, the UK is now facing a very hard road ahead. May will be negotiating the lives and livelihoods of her people, and up till now, both British expats and UK citizens are very worried indeed.