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Theresa May is no longer Theresa Maybe

  • Author:Max Lin
  • Release on:2017-02-28

Theresa May is no longer Theresa Maybe, as The Economist dubbed her. After months of gnomic statements, the prime minister appears to have locked herself in a dark room over Christmas and taken the hard decisions about Brexit. In her speech on Tuesday, she outlined a bold plan of intentions: the UK will leave the single market, regain full control over EU immigration and pursue trade agreements with the EU and other countries. In short, Mrs May confirmed that the government is pursuing a “Canada+” model. Both in the UK and elsewhere, a statement of intent is most welcome. Now, the really hard part is making it happen.

There was clarity too on a transition deal. Mrs May said she wishes to avoid a “disruptive cliff-edge” — and the markets responded favourably with sterling rebounding. There will be a “phased process of implementation” over a finite time but it is still unclear how this will work or what will change between the end of the Article 50 process and the ultimate break with the EU. This may be out of Britain’s hands — the EU27 nations will have their own thoughts about the terms of the transition.
The largest unknown area is the UK’s future in the customs union, which provides for the frictionless movement of goods across Europe. Mrs May admitted that remaining a full member was off the table — she wants Britain to strike its own trade deals. But nor does she want to quit entirely. Instead, Britain may become “an associate member of the customs union in some way” — a rejigging of the notorious “have our cake and eat it” formula.
This could prove to be the most contentious issue in the negotiations: Britain needs it to please important employers like Nissan because they use the UK as a base for exporting to Europe; the EU, meanwhile, can use it as leverage. Both sides know that pulling the plug on the customs union in its entirety could be hugely disruptive.
Mrs May’s Brexit approach is to abandon all elements of EU membership and then claw some back, notably on customs and security. It is a strategy designed to satisfy the country’s political mood. She has to convince EU leaders that such an approach is in their interests, too. There is a precedent for this: during her time in the Home Office, Mrs May pushed for the UK to opt out of 130 EU Justice and Home Affairs measures. She ended up opting back in to 35 of them, including the European arrest warrant. The same approach is being taken with Brexit.
Aside from the unnecessary threat that Britain will walk away if offered a “bad deal”, the tone and content of the speech was well judged. After plenty of stick brandished in Europe’s direction, there were lots of carrots in the talk of friendship and a new “strategic partnership”.

For those who supported Remain in last year’s referendum, Mrs May has killed off their last hopes of being partly in, partly out of Europe. For Brexiters, their fears that the prime minister would not deliver on the referendum result have been calmed.

Today marks of the dawn of Brexit Britain. It could be a cold shower for politicians and the economy, but there seems to be no going back. It is time for everyone to pull together to make it work.

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