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Incoming Prime Minister Theresa May has said that “Brexit means Brexit”. But what does that actually mean? What can we infer from her statements so far about how she might approach the negotiations with the EU? Pawel Swidlicki investigates.
12 July 2016
Theresa May mostly kept her head down during the referendum campaign, a choice which helped propel her into No 10. However, she did make one significant intervention in a speech at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, where she said,
The reality is that we do not know on what terms we would have access to the single market. We do know that in a negotiation we would need to make concessions in order to access it, and those concessions could well be about accepting EU regulations, over which we would have no say, making financial contributions, just as we do now, accepting free movement rules, just as we do now, or quite possibly all 3 combined. It is not clear why other EU member states would give Britain a better deal than they themselves enjoy.
This point and the speech more broadly, make it clear she is aware of the basic trade-off involved between access to the single market and control (including over immigration). This may sooth EU concerns around the UK “cherry picking” in any Brexit negotiations. But what about her view on specific issues in the negotiations?
Immigration: May has consistently argued for, and as Home Secretary tried to achieve, lower levels of migration into the UK. In launching her leadership bid, she described regaining “more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe” as one of her priorities. While the intention to extract the UK from free movement in its current form is clear, she has been purposefully vague as to what will replace it – it is notable for example she said “more control” as opposed to “complete control”. Coupled with her desire to maintain the highest degree of market access possible, this suggests May might be willing to reach an accommodation with the EU to strike a balance between full free movement and no free movement. At this stage it is too early to speculate as to whether this will be achieved via an ‘emergency brake’, a capped work permit scheme or a tailored points-based system.
Sovereignty: May comes across as a very practical politician, not one obsessed about abstract principles. In the speech cited above during the campaign, she also talked about ‘maximising sovereignty’, adding that “I use the word ‘maximise’ advisedly, because no country or empire in world history has ever been totally sovereign, completely in control of its destiny.” She further argued that membership of international organisations boosts the UK’s influence, security and prosperity. Although that is now a moot point as regards to formal EU membership, it suggests she is open to pragmatic compromises to try to keep in place some of its benefits.
Security: This is May’s area of expertise and a key reason behind her decision to back Remain – as Home Secretary, she was instrumental in getting the UK to opt back into a number of EU crime and justice measures such as the European Arrest Warrant and various criminal data-sharing mechanisms despite the fact this meant these coming under the jurisdiction of the ECJ. She described these as “practical measures that promote effective cooperation between different European law enforcement organisations” adding that “if we were not part of them Britain would be less safe.” It is likely therefore that maintaining close co-operation with the EU on security issues will be a priority for May.
Global trade: Writing in The Sun on Sunday, May said that “We will be able to negotiate our own trade deals with countries outside Europe”. This is welcome as boosting trade with other global economies will be essential to counter-balance any economic damage from a lower degree of single market access. However, it is also an easy commitment to make at this stage – with limited resources, it remains to be seen how much of a priority this will be for May’s government. This level of openness also seems at odds with some of her other comments around an economy which works better for everyone and which imply greater levels of protection for some parts of society from the effects of globalisation. These are not incompatible though, it could simply mean better redistribution of the gains from said globalisation and openness.
Competition/procurement: Also in The Sun on Sunday, May argued that outside of the EU, “we’ll be able to do lots of common-sense things, like cut back on red tape and let local councils buy British.” She went further in her speech launching her leadership campaign saying, “A proper industrial strategy wouldn’t automatically stop the sale of British firms to foreign ones, but it should be capable of stepping in to defend a sector that is as important as pharmaceuticals is to Britain.” Politically this is interesting as it shows May could try to use the opportunities posed by Brexit to win over left-leaning voters – similar criticisms of EU state aid and procurement rules have been made by none other than Jeremy Corbyn himself. However, cutting off EU companies’ access to UK procurement contracts will make it harder to strike a comprehensive trade deal with the EU and would likely preclude the UK from seeing some form of membership of the European Economic Area (the so-called Norway model).
In terms of an overall picture, things remain vague. It seems clear May will seek greater control over immigration but exactly how much access to the single market she is willing to give up is unclear. Beyond this, particularly on security issues, it seems likely she will seek to continue close cooperation with the EU, though her hawkish stance on the migration crisis could yet cause tensions. Her concept of wholesale economic reform is hard to reconcile with some parts of EU state aid and competition rules, and it is also hard to envisage there being much time for such huge changes while Brexit is being undertaken. All this leaves us not knowing exactly what model she might opt for, though parts are hard to reconcile with full membership of the single market. Finally, it also depends who she surrounds herself with in her cabinet and who she appoints to the ‘Secretary of State for Brexit’ role which she has said she will create.