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May’s plan for Brexit

From the day she took office Theresa May has been pressed to spell out what Brexit really means for her Government and on Tuesday she responded. In a resolute speech, made symbolically not in Parliament but Lancaster House presenting herself as a national not party leader, she defined Brexit in twelve clear points.

The tone as well as the content of the speech was designed to say unambiguously that the UK is leaving the EU. She had voted ‘remain’ and committed Brexiteers needed to be convinced that Brexit really does mean Brexit so far as she is concerned.  She won’t seek to remain in the single market or the customs union. However she promised that Parliament would have a vote on the final terms negotiated with the EU and there is no knowing at this stage how the majority of MPs and Peers who oppose Brexit will vote when they see those terms.

Control of our own laws and freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice was a clear priority for Mrs May which has to mean total separation from the EU. Her third objective is to strengthen the bond between the four nations of the United Kingdom and that is far from certain. Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the EU. Whilst public opinion in Scotland is not ready for a second independence referendum yet, that could change if Brexit means hard times for Scottish jobs and the economy. Northern Ireland is inevitably a special case because it borders an EU member state. If Mrs May cannot negotiate to keep that border open, opinion in the north could become hostile. That is why her fourth objective is to maintain the Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland.

Her highest priority seems to be controlling the number of people who come to Britain from the EU. That is a vexed matter. Why are European immigrants less welcome than the equivalent numbers who come from non-EU countries? And how will we manage without those Europeans? The NHS employs 55,000 EU citizens and social care organisations employ 80,000. Last week the Environment Secretary assured British farmers they would still be able to employ seasonal labour from the EU.

There were welcome commitments in the speech to protect the rights of those EU nationals in Britain and the concomitant rights of Britons in EU member states. Mrs May also promised not only to protect existing worker’s rights in European legislation but to build on them.

She also wants a reciprocal free trade deal with the EU to give us tariff free access to their markets without belonging to the single market and the customs union because she wants the freedom to make similar agreements with other countries. The likelihood of the EU granting this is small and depends on how much they really want to trade with us and risk other member states thinking they could have similar relationships with the EU and reduce the cost of full membership.

Mrs May recognises that we still need to collaborate with the EU on scientific and technological research, in the fight against crime and terrorism and in foreign and defence policies. She wants a “smooth and orderly Brexit” with a phased process of implementation that is in the best interests of the UK, the EU and each of its member states. Whilst that is right it is far from inevitable and prayer for all involved in these negotiations is obviously necessary.

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