As anyone who has ever read this blog, or follows me on Twitter, knows, I am no fan of Theresa May or her government’s position on Brexit. So it was then not without a little surprise that I did not find myself shouting at the screen while listening to the UK Prime Minister’s latest Brexit speech (full text here). My reaction was more “what does that actually mean in practice?”
To put it another way, we have not really even known where May wants to take Brexit, let alone how she will get the UK there. Now we at least have part of the answer to the former.
May, after today’s speech, wants to take the UK towards the very softest variant possible of Hard Brexit.
At the start of her speech May repeated her usual line that she interprets Brexit as meaning Britain takes back controls of its laws, its borders and its money – i.e. no EEA / Norway option, no freedom of movement, and no contribution to the EU budget.
And then, having set the UK on the outside, she put the whole thing back together.
She paid special attention to goods, explaining how common product standards for global supply chains matter. How on matters not normally covered by Free Trade Agreements the UK wanted to be closer than Canada or South Korea is to the EU, advocating close cooperation on everything from financial services through to broadcasting and the digital single market. The EU ought to be amenable to this, was her assertion, because it is in the EU’s interests to agree to this just as it is in the UK’s interests. Plus it was particularly necessary to be very close so as to avoid a hard border in Ireland, and no-one wants that she said.
On Customs it was not far different. Not the Customs Union, but a Customs Partnership was what May advocated – this is what she said:
At the border, the UK would mirror the EU’s requirements for imports from the rest of the world, applying the same tariffs and the same rules of origin as the EU for those goods arriving in the UK and intended for the EU. By following this approach, we would know that all goods entering the EU via the UK pay the right EU duties, removing the need for customs processes at the UK-EU border.
But, importantly, we would put in place a mechanism so that the UK would also be able to apply its own tariffs and trade policy for goods intended for the UK market.
As close to the Customs Union as one could be, without actually being in it. Likewise this matters for Ireland.
But while the direction is now clearer, this nevertheless raises a whole host of other extremely complicated (and possibly even intractable) problems. The UK does not have a customs system in place to cope with that degree of complexity, and indeed the very idea was described as “innovative” when first floated, i.e. untested and unlikely to work. May finds the European Court of Justice abhorrent, so suggests an alternative dispute resolution system in the case of UK-EU disputes in future – how that works, and who is to pay for it remains open.
Also one gains the distinct impression that no-one’s heart is really in this, a point that did not even escape Jason Groves of the Daily Mail. A journalist asked May a question as to whether all of this was more of a theoretical reassertion of UK control than an actual reassertion of control, if in the end pretty much everything was going to stay the same anyway. “The UK Parliament will be sovereign” May replied. Sovereign, one assumes, to decide that on balance it wants to change nothing in different industrial sectors.
May talked a lot in the future tense, about how she will talk with all and sundry about all of this. One wonders why this comes only now, just shy of half way through the Article 50 process. But better late than never I suppose. But a lot of this is going to have to be shoved into the transition period.
Brussels reactions were mixed. Barnier rather terse, Weber negative, Verhofstadt talked of cherries on the cake rather than picking them. One feels Brussels heard this whole thing as just a “Canada” style proposal. But the more serious and pragmatic tone that May adopted this time will have won her some friends.
So, in some small way, things are starting to move. We know where the UK is trying to go now. We do not know how it will get there, or if the journey is worthwhile. Answering that little lot starts next week.