A hallmark of Theresa May’s government to date has been the creation of policy vacuums which allow others, usually her opponents, to shape the political narrative. In this context, today’s speech from the Prime Minister on Brexit was essential to regain the initiative – from those both in Europe and domestically who have a different agenda – and to provide a foundation on which the next stage of talks can take place.
The insistence that hard truths will need to be faced and the UK won’t be able to have everything its own way is both long overdue and likely to frustrate those on either side of the debate who see it in black and white terms. The serious tone of May’s speech and her focus on the need for compromise and reasonableness on all sides will likely persuade at least some of her critics that she is looking for a pragmatic way forward. The question remains as to whether this is possible in such an asymmetric negotiation where the European Union holds the whip hand.
Through the policy detail and soundbites it was clear that the Prime Minister’s ambition is now to achieve essentially the softest possible Brexit outside of the Customs Union and Single Market. At the same time, the speech leaves open the option for a successor to adopt a harder Brexit, albeit with an acknowledgement that this would carry consequences. This is her attempt to keep all sides of her party on board.
May’s acknowledgement that it is not possible to have the same access without all the obligations that come with full membership is important. It provides the foundation for her to move the debate onto the question of what the new balance of access and obligations should be. This should be seen alongside her line that negotiating varying levels of access and alignment in different sectors cannot be described as cherry picking unless you apply that term to every trade agreement ever made. Taken together, this represents the first serious riposte to the Commission’s hard-line stance that there is a binary choice between membership of the single market and customs union, or a so-called ‘Canada dry’ model.
The Prime Minister’s acknowledgement that financial services passporting won’t happen is an important example of the UK not asking to ‘have its cake and eat it’. However, at the same time the suggestion that the UK will continue to ‘remain part of’ the European Medicines Agency, the European Chemicals Agency, and the European Aviation Safety Agency via some sort of associate membership is very significant. While this stance will be welcome for those industries it is likely to be very difficult for the EU to accept without total oversight by the ECJ.
On the tricky question of the Irish border, the government has maintained its stated desire to avoid a hard North-South border while protecting the integrity of the union by also opposing a border in the Irish Sea. No new policy proposals on how to achieve this were put forward with the Prime Minister re-stating the options put forward last year (to scepticism from many quarters) in the UK Government’s customs paper. However, the tonal change is significant. The language on the UK recognising that it has joint obligations to find a solution to the Irish border issue and her repeated references to working closely with the Taoiseach are both designed to show that the UK wants to work constructively rather than take a unilateral approach. It also appears to be a reaction to what many perceived to be an overreaction by the Government to the protocol on the Irish border included in the draft withdrawal agreement published earlier in the week by the Commission.
However, while the rhetoric is clear the solution is much less transparent. The preference for a ‘technology-based solution’ which allows for an infrastructure free border has been floated previously. It remains unclear whether this is technologically feasible, acceptable to the Commission and the Irish Government, and whether it would address security concerns that any equipment on the border could become a target.
While the speech is a step in the right direction and the change of tone will placate many people, ultimately it remains indisputable that the EU has the upper hand. How the Commission responds will ultimately be of more significance in the long term. The UK has made no secret that it doesn’t want to give a running commentary on negotiations. This is unlikely to change and so it is likely to be some time before we get another significant update from the UK side. All eyes now turn to Brussels.