Speaking in London today, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, called for a wide-ranging free trade deal with the EU after Brexit. The speech was delivered ahead of the start of negotiations on the UK’s future partnership with Brussels during which it was confirmed that Britain would leave the European Union’s single market and customs union. May set out some hard facts about the departure acknowledging that “We are leaving the single market… life is going to be different”.

This is the first time that May has accepted that Britain may suffer with new trade barriers by severing its formal ties but she reiterated the view that the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK and mass immigration must end.  

The Prime Minister used her speech to outline what the UK wants from an economic relationship with the EU after Brexit. She set out five tests for the deal; it must deliver on the June 2016 referendum result; be a lasting solution; protect jobs; deliver security for the UK and the EU; maintain the UK as a modern, open, outward-looking, tolerant, European democracy; and strengthen the union of British nations and its divided electorate.

She did however acknowledge that it is unavoidable that the UK will continue to be affected by EU law after Brexit. This is unsurprising given that, if the UK wants access to EU markets, it must accept the requirement for binding commitments to standards in order to maintain trade in goods. As UK regulations are already aligned with EU law, it would not make sense to reduce such standards. That said, May was clear that she intends to reserve the option for Britain to deviate.

There were also some key pledges made that will shape the UK’s approach to the upcoming negotiations sending clear messages to the EU negotiators:

  • The UK will make binding commitments to maintain EU regulatory standards in certain areas
  • The UK will not lower regulatory standards on industrial goods
  • EU legal decisions will continue to affect the UK
  • There will be no hard border in Ireland
  • The UK will not be part of a digital single market
  • The UK wants to remain part of the European Medicines Agency, the European Chemicals Agency, and the European Aviation Safety Agency

Teresa May strongly rejected EU claims that what the UK wants amounts to ‘cherry picking’. She said both sides needed to accept that neither side can have exactly what it wants but she was confident that an agreement can be found. There have been a number of concerns raised that, whilst the speech was expected to reach out to the EU negotiators, it may have caused consternation in their camp by demonstrating a lack of compromise. Her words did not however have that effect within her own party. The Conservative government has been divided to date on how closely Britain should align with the EU, but leading Euro-sceptics were keen to back her. Boris Johnson stated that the plan will allow Britain to keep close ties but allow the UK to “to innovate, to set our own agenda, to make our own laws and to do ambitious free trade deals around the world”. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a strong opponent of Brexit, said it was the same wish-list plan already rejected by the EU.

The UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 but it wants a transition period lasting around two years after that, intended to smooth the way to the future relationship post-Brexit. EU leaders are to agree instructions for their negotiators when they meet on 22-23 March 2018 to enable trade talks can start in the weeks after that. Commence It is hoped that a trade deal will be agreed by the end of the year.

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