LONDON — It should come as no real surprise that the UK is leaving the single market and the customs union.
Ever since Theresa May first announced, during her party conference speech last year, that she would take control of our borders and leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, it was clear that Britain was heading for a hard Brexit.
May’s appointment of Liam Fox to the new role of international trade secretary also made it all but inevitable that we would leave the customs union.
For months now it has been obvious that we are set, in the words of former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, for a “full English Brexit”.
Yet confirming we’re all about to walk the plank isn’t the same as explaining what awaits us in the waters below. And on this measure May’s speech offered little.
May spelled out her negotiating aims for the first time. Yet many of these aims were contradictory.
On the one hand she confirmed her intention to leave the customs union, yet at the same time she called for a deal that would allow the UK to retain a soft border with the Republic of Ireland. These two aims are fundamentally incompatible.
Later she added that she would consider maintaining an “associate membership” of the customs union with the EU. May gave no details of what such an associate membership would involve, or how it would be compatible with her promise not to accept a deal that would leave us “half-in, half out” of the EU.
The speech was also full of conciliatory comments about our “neighbours and friends” in the EU. Yet she warned that Britain will effectively turn itself into an Asian-style tax haven if European countries don’t offer us a good deal.
This seems like a bizarre threat to make given that it would involve Britain facing new trade tariffs and non-tariff barriers which would be disastrous for the UK economy. According to one report circulated within the Cabinet, a clean break from the customs union could cost the UK up to 4.5% of GDP by 2030 and that’s without even taking into account the huge burdens placed on business and citizens from such a hard divorce.
As Tony Blair once said of David Cameron’s renegotiation efforts, such threats are reminiscent of the scene in Blazing Saddles “where the sheriff says as he holds a gun to his own head: ‘If you don’t do what I want I’ll blow my brains out.'”
“You want to watch out that one of the [other EU member states] doesn’t just say: ‘OK, go ahead.'”
For an EU project facing the prospect of possible destruction, such threats from one departing member are likely to be quickly dismissed. As one German politician succinctly put it this week: “we should ignore this” and they probably will.
‘Pro cake, pro eating it’
There was also a huge amount of wishful thinking in May’s speech.
The foreign secretary Boris Johnson famously said of Britain’s Brexit negotiations that “our policy is having our cake and eating it.”
May’s speech today was Johnson’s ‘pro cake” policy writ large. Over the course of almost an hour the prime minister said she was confident that she could secure a “smooth and orderly Brexit” which would “remove as many barriers to trade as possible” while leaving the UK better off than it was before.
Given the scale of the task she now faces, achieving just one of these aims, seems an uphill struggle. Achieving them all seems all but impossible. As EU council president Donald Tusk once said in response to Johnson’s ‘pro-cake’ policy: “To all who believe in it, I propose a simple experiment. Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate.”
But whatever the wisdom of May’s strategy, we at least now know what it is. And if absolutely everything goes to plan over the next two years then today’s speech will go down in history as the moment Britain stepped out into a new, bigger and richer role on the global stage.
And if everything doesn’t go to plan then it will go down as one of the most disastrous speeches by a UK prime minister in our history.
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