LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech to the nation on Sky News on Sunday should have been the linchpin moment that put Britain at ease by showing that the government knows what it is doing when it negotiates the nation’s exit from the European Union.
Unfortunately, she ended up throwing up more uncertainty and a lack of a concrete plan that is needed right now.
She heavily hinted at a “hard Brexit” — Britain focusing on immigration control and saying that “leaving the EU does not mean retaining bits of membership.”
While also saying in the same interview with Sky News that she “wants the best possible deal for trading with and operating within the single European market.”
Britain needed clarity over Brexit talk preparation, not a cloud of fog shrouding it further.
May and her Conservative government need to give more clarity, despite her saying many times that “Brexit means Brexit” and that she would not give a “running commentary” on how talks would go because:
1. “Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall” — Sir Ivan Rogers unexpectedly quit as the British ambassador to the European Union on January 3, calling on former colleagues to challenge “muddled thinking” and “ill-founded arguments” during the Brexit talks.
Rogers apparently also met former Prime Minister David Cameron to warn him about it too.
2. A major Tory donor has threatened to pull the plug — Sir Andrew Cook, who has given more than £1 million to the Conservatives, warned he could stop donations if the party pulled Britain out of Europe with without a decent trade deal as the UK could “sleepwalk to disaster” if it leaves the Single Market.
3. The government’s Brexit department is revolting — The civil servants that are in charge of helping Britain transition out of the EU are freaking out over lack of strategy, workload, and stagnant of pay. In November, the former head of the Foreign Office in Britain, Sir Simon Fraser said the British government’s lack of a clear Brexit plan is prompting senior officials to think about quitting.
4. The war has started on other major cities poaching businesses from London — This is because they believe that it is going to be a “hard Brexit”, which is the UK leaving the EU without a trade deal in exchange for total control over immigration. This would mean Britain would leave the Single Market and the customs union, which unifies import tariffs across members.
It is seen as a potential death blow to the City of London, and therefore the wider economy, as it would mean companies would lose financial passporting rights. If the passport is taken away, then London could cease to be the most important financial centre in Europe, costing the UK thousands of jobs and billions in revenues.
So what did Prime Minister May do to abate this uncertainty? — Not very much.
Is it a “hard Brexit” or isn’t it?
Britain voted for a Brexit by a slim majority on June 23 and, since then, there has been much speculation on when May will trigger Article 50 and therefore start the two-year negotiation period. March 2017 is the current target date but a Supreme Court case will rule in January 2017 whether she will have to get permission from parliament to do this. This could slow things down.
May’s government has been experiencing a wave of issues internally and externally about how talks are being prepared for. On top of that, while May says she will not give a “running commentary” on how negotiations are going, she has made it clear in various speeches that her government is prioritising immigration restrictions. This would imply a “hard Brexit.”
So to be clear — Britain has not even started the formal negotiation period yet, so nothing has actually changed. But you can prepare to go into talks — that is the whole point of preparation and strategy. While it is impossible to know the outcome of the talks, once Article 50 is triggered, it is not untoward to expect to seek what kind of deal the government is pushing for.
In her Sky News speech, which was the first of 2017, and May said the government’s thinking on Brexit “isn’t muddled at all” after being asked to respond to former UK ambassador to the EU’s criticism.
But isn’t it?
It’s either Single Market access or full control over immigration
People often talk… as if somehow we’re leaving the EU but we want to keep bits of membership of the EU. We’re leaving. We’re coming out.
The speech lacked to clarify what she meant by how the government’s priority was to get the “best possible deal” while also saying “people often talk… as if somehow we’re leaving the EU but we want to keep bits of membership of the EU. We’re leaving. We’re coming out. We’re not going to be a member of the EU any longer.”
This basically says we are going for a “hard Brexit” without actually saying that phrase — if immigration is prioritised. As stipulated, this has been a main focus of all speeches since the referendum last June.
But in the same interview with Sky News she says she “wants the best possible deal for trading with and operating within the single European market” while also saying
“so the question is what is the right relationship for the UK to have with the European Union when we are outside. We will be able to have control of our borders, control of our laws.”
When asked whether she is prioritising Single Market access over immigration though, she said it is not about keeping some bits of EU membership.
So where does that leave us?
Well, immigration control was the main stipulation for a majority of those voting for Brexit. Not all, but it was a key marker for most.
May has put immigration control at the forefront of talks in recent months and while today did not give anymore details on which one is being prioritised over the other — she simply said it is “not a binary issue” — all we can do is look at what the EU officials have said regarding what our options are.
EU parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt said, in an interview with Business Insider, that the deal Britain has discussed so far makes no sense.
“The basic position of all the institutions in Europe is very clear: The four freedoms are bound to each other. The internal market is based on four freedoms — not three, or two. Goods, services, capital, and the free movement of people. You cannot separate them. I think this is a perfectly firm and clear position for everybody,” he said.
Meanwhile, Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said the EU
is not “bluffing” when it says it will push Britain into a “hard Brexit” if Prime Minister Theresa insists in opting out of freedom of movement. Malta assumes EU presidency this month, so Muscat will become even more of a prominent voice during Brexit talks next year.
So, we cannot have it all. Britain cannot realistically expect to have access to the Single Market like it does now while also having full control over immigration. If that is what May’s strategy is going into talks, then negotiations could be over quicker than we think.
But we do not know what the strategy is because May failed to give any clarity over how prepared the government is in tackling one of the most important political discussions in Britain’s history… yet.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.