Brexit Plan Details Finally Outlined... But Not Really

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Theresa ‘Maybe’ no more. British Prime Minister Theresa May outlined the official plans to launch Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) on Tuesday. Despite her official stance in the Remain campaign, it appears as though May took some time out of her holidays to work out how to follow the wishes of her citizens.

During her speech yesterday, May finally acknowledged that she has plans to have the UK follow through with leaving the EU. Unfortunately, she didn’t exactly get into the nitty-gritty, although she did confirm that the final deal would be put to a vote in Parliament.

“We seek a new and equal partnership, between an independent, self-governing, global Britain and our friends and allies in the EU,” May told an audience of foreign diplomats, Britain’s Brexit negotiating team, and several thousand anxious citizens tuning into her much-anticipated speech.

May spoke of her priorities in the upcoming negotiations, including maintaining the common travel area between the UK and Irish Republic, and ultimate control of migration between the UK and the EU. Her government’s main items for the UK would be:

  • 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
  • Explicitly rule out membership in the EU’s single market
  • Not stay in the customs union, but try and strike a separate deal as an “Associate Member” to make trading as “frictionless as possible”
  • Not be required to contribute large sums to the EU budget, but only pay towards specific programs
  • Would make a “new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement” with the EU, and build trading relationships with countries beyond Europe

She painted a vision of Britain to emerge “stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking than before.” Most importantly, she emphasized that the UK “cannot possibly” remain within the European single market, as staying in it would mean not leaving the EU at all.

“This agreement should allow for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states,” May stated in a calm, collected manner. “It should give the British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within the European markets--and let European businesses do the same in Britain. But I want to be clear. What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market.”

This was a recognition of the fundamental tension between the government’s basic ambitions: unencumbered trade with the EU, but also control of Britain’s borders and laws-one of the primary issues behind many voters’ decision to leave the union. May was not clear on how much she would be willing to compromise to maintain access to the single market and customs union for goods. Membership in the customs union limits the options for the countries involved to strike free-trade deals with non-European nations. May has already expressed some desire for new deals with India and China, wanting to bring the British economy up to a global position.

Negotiations are set to begin after notice under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is served by the end of March. After that, they will have two years to negotiate a deal. Unfortunately, this seems like the ‘have your cake and eat it too’ mentality that the EU claimed they would not stand for. Essentially, Britain seems as though they are looking to reject what they dislike about the union- like freedom of movement of EU people- but keep trade open to improve the economy. Back in October, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, even warned Britain that “there will be no cakes on the table for anyone - only salt and vinegar.”

Kallum Pickering, Senior British Economist at Berenberg Bank in London, was blunt but more hopeful in his analysis, writing that, “[W]e do not expect the EU to compromise its principles, but the UL is set to face significant economic consequences from Brexit.” While he believes European nations are expected to be stingy with market access, eventually they will bend, especially considering the Telegraph is predicting a £10 billion black hole in the EU budget otherwise. “In the final deal,” Pickering writes, “The UK maintains a good level of access to the EU’s goods markets and limited access to the less-developed services market. Crucially, we expect the UK to lose its EU financial services passport,” Pickering predicts, referring to the system that allowed banks based in Britain to offer financial services throughout the union. “This follows from the UK raising some modest barriers to migration from the EU.”

It’s expected, the EU’s plans to take a hard stance against Britain are no doubt an attempt to send a message to other members that might consider leaving. However, May already anticipated the harsh response, explicitly addressing that concern by saying, “I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.”

To believe May’s speech would require one to believe all negotiations will be handled without a single fight. She tried to play it cool, but her announcement of a second vote in parliament indicates her ongoing need for more cordial relations with Europe. Asking MPs to sign off on the deal is a sign that government still hopes there will be a deal to vote on, otherwise it may still be rejected- aka a messy departure.

Although there is the two-year time frame for negotiations, nervous carmakers, bankers and business owners were looking for more details on transitional arrangements, but these deals were only dangled as a possibility. May seems to think that Britain will be allowed to benefit from the “frictionless” supply chains while being allowed to negotiate individual tariffs with non-EU countries. “We do not wish to undermine the single market,” she insisted, still believing that the EU was good for the rest of Europe, while simultaneously outlining her reasons for leaving.

We still know nothing of her plans though. May seemed one step away from wagging her finger at the crowd scolding that “loose lips sink ships,” while maintaining that discipline was a vital component of not revealing her plans. “Those who urge us to reveal more, the blow-by-blow details...will not be acting in the national interest,” she said. “Every stray word and hyped-up media report will make it harder to get the right deal for Britain.”

This seems mighty convenient for May. I’m not suggesting she pull a Kris Kobach outlining her plan for the next 365 days, but her speech seemed to be full of a lot of pandering to the hard right and the population that voted to leave. She made a lot of broad, sweeping statements about her expectations but has left a lot of people in the dark. Although her speech was a welcome indication of her plans, it seems pretty unrealistic. Her time frame and desires for Britain hinge on all her demands being met, which never happens in life, let alone politics.

Additionally, why can’t the population have more details? They are the ones most affected by this process, and yet even they are uninformed of her grand ideas. What will she be negotiating with? What is she willing to compromise or sacrifice to gain what she’s outlined? Shouldn’t they get a say in all this? Business owners and citizens on working visa still have no idea what will be happening with their livelihoods, and what steps should be taken to protect themselves from economic ruin should a messy departure or negotiations not be all sunshine and rainbows. I’m not even living in the UK and I feel like I need to know more. As Tim Farron, the leader of the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, pointed out: “The people voted for departure, they should be given a vote on the destination. This is a theft of democracy.”

Theft of democracy might be an exaggeration, but he’s right. For months, May has kept relatively silent on these plans. And Tuesday’s speech was a nice confirmation of the referendum decision, but we’re all still sitting here wondering what the next few months will hold. In terms of reassuring her citizens and the world that this is a successful move, she’s done nothing but placate her critics on her stance. So Theresa May wants to leave the EU. Great. How the hell is she going run her government and country through this? We still don’t know.

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