LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May’s six-page letter triggering Article 50 and her statement to Parliament that followed it, both suggest a noticeable softening of her position on Brexit, compared to previous statements made by government ministers.
So does this mark a real shift, or is there an implied threat contained within the warm words?
Here are five signs from May’s letter and statement today that suggest a softening and one sign that suggests otherwise.
Theresa May has softened her stance towards the European Union.
May’s letter to European Council Donald Tusk states no fewer than seven times that she wants a “deep and special partnership” with the EU and waxes at length about the “broad” alliance she wants to form with the EU. This is a world away from the isolationist rhetoric and imagery seen on some of the front pages of some of Britain’s newspapers this morning.
No cut-off date for EU citizens rights.
Previous reports suggested that the triggering of Article 50 would be the “cut-off date” for EU migrants seeking to move to the UK, while retaining the right to stay after Brexit. However, neither the letter nor May’s statement contains any reference to a cut-off date, with Downing Street sources suggesting the idea has been quashed. A spokesperson for the prime minister all but confirmed there would be no such cut-off date today, telling journalists that Britain would “comply with our treaty obligations” all the time it remains a member.
May accepts she has got a mountain to climb.
Until now May and her government have been bullish about their chances of securing a free trade deal with the EU in just two-years, despite most experts suggesting it will be all but impossible to do so. However, her letter today acknowledges the difficulty in doing so in the most explicit terms so far. “We recognise that it will be a challenge to reach such a comprehensive agreement within the two-year period set out for withdrawal discussions in the Treaty,” she tells Tusk.
She also accepts we may lose out from Brexit.
May’s statement to MPs included her clearest concession, since becoming prime minister, that Britain could lose out from Brexit.
“We understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU,” she said.
“We know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We know that UK companies that trade with the EU will have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part, just as we do in other overseas markets. We accept that.”
This is a significant departure from statements by some ministers which have suggested that leaving the EU will be almost entirely cost-free. This could signal a new lowering of expectations about what is achievable over the next two years.
She does not want a no-deal Brexit.
The foreign secretary Boris Johnson has insisted that crashing out of the EU on WTO terms would be “perfectly ok.” However, May made it clear in her letter to Tusk that she does not share this position, saying that “it is not the outcome that either side should seek.”
However, she is willing to use it as a threat.
While the overall tone of the letter and her Commons statement is more emollient than in the past, the letter does contain one significant threat.
While noting that she wants to avoid a no-deal Brexit, she also seeks to link it to the threat of crashing out without any deal on security co-operation.
“If, however, we leave the European Union without an agreement the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms,” she tells Tusk.
However, she then adds: “In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened. In this kind of scenario, both the United Kingdom and the European Union would of course cope with the change, but it is not the outcome that either side should seek. We must therefore work hard to avoid that outcome.”
A spokesperson for the prime minister was repeatedly asked today whether this was a threat to withdraw Britain’s co-operation with the EU on security, if the EU fails to offer a comprehensive free trade before Brexit.
They replied repeatedly that it was “simply a statement of fact.”
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