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A Global Britain: Theresa May Outlines Priorities for Brexit

On Tuesday January 17, in what may have been the most important speech in British political history since Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” address to Parliament, UK Prime Minister Theresa May laid out her government’s vision for taking Britain out of the European Union. Speaking from behind a podium that read “A Global Britain”, May used the widely-anticipated speech to shape her government’s Brexit negotiating posture, the so-called “Plan for Britain.” Furthermore, May insisted that, in the June 2016 EU membership referendum, voters chose to “leave the European Union and embrace the world,” and used this narrative to shed light on the nature of Britain’s future relationships with Europe and with the rest of the globe.

May began the speech with a message to the British people on her government’s domestic agenda post-Brexit. She lauded the situation as “a moment of change to build a stronger economy and a fairer society” for Britain. May’s speech echoed her rallying cry to make Britain “a country that works for everyone” that has been a refrain of hers since winning the Conservative Party leadership race in July 2016. May’s inclusive rhetoric aims to transform the divisive and isolationist Brexit campaign into an affirmation of Britain’s status in the world.

Responding to uncertainty about Britain’s post-Brexit status, May made it abundantly clear that Britain was headed for a hard Brexit.

“Not partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out,” May said, “We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave.”

May highlighted twelve objectives for the government in the process of leaving the EU. The three major objectives pertain to EU laws and regulation that currently apply to Britain, control of immigration, and the future of UK access to the European single market.

After the leave vote, many in the British business community were anxious about regulatory uncertainty in a post-Brexit economy. May addressed this issue in detail, saying that as the European Communities Act, the body of EU regulations, is repealed, the act’s provisions will be enshrined in British law to allow for regulatory continuity. Parliament will then be able to review each regulation and decide whether or not to keep it.

A major issue of contention in the Brexit campaign was immigration. Some Leave campaigners, like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, used the issue to inflame passions in voters, with a plurality of Brits viewing immigration as the most important issue facing the country, overtaking the economy for the first time since 2008. May herself had a mixed record on immigration in her previous position as Home Secretary, including her rejection of EU compulsory refugee quotas. In the speech, May promised to “get control of the number of people coming to Britain from the EU.” Furthermore, May attributed pressure on public services and falling wages to high levels of net migration to the UK over the last decade.

British access to the European single market has been an issue of uncertainty since the Leave vote. Some in Britain speculated that negotiators would try to get the UK a deal similar to Norway, which pays fees for access to the single market without being a member of the EU. But, acknowledging the unwillingness of EU negotiators to give in to British access to the single market, May insisted “[the Government’s proposal] cannot mean membership of the single market.” It will now be up to Britain to negotiate a trade deal with the EU bloc. Trade deals are subject to approval of each member of the single market, a policy that creates a daunting task for May and her government.

Reaction to May’s speech was mixed. Within the UK, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon remarked that a second referendum for Scottish independence was “all but inevitable.” She pointed to the fact that Scots voted to stay in the EU by a twenty-four point margin. Since becoming Prime Minister, May has placed great emphasis on maintaining the union, and in her speech she promised to give devolved governments an outlet to express their wishes in negotiations with the EU.

In a tense exchange with May in the House of Commons, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn dubbed May “the Irony Lady,” an alteration of the Iron Lady, a moniker commonly used in reference to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, because of May’s expressed wish to trade with the single market while not being a member of it.

British businesses mostly met May’s remarks with appreciation for providing some clarity into the negotiations process. Many in the business community, however, warn that the true test for this government will come once Article 50 is triggered and talks begin.

Outside the UK, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier released a statement that highlighted the common goals of the EU and UK.

“We welcome that the British prime minister is today outlining her government’s ideas for leaving and has finally created a little more clarity about the British plans,” Steinmeier wrote. “She has underlined that Great Britain is striving for a positive and constructive partnership, a friendship, with a strong EU. That is good.”

While May’s government finally has a plan for negotiations on the table, the actual timeframe for triggering Article 50 is now uncertain. After becoming Prime Minister, May pledged to initiate the process by the end of March 2017. A legal challenge from a pro-Remain group, however, has this date on hold as the British Supreme Court decides whether or not the triggering of Article 50 requires a vote from Parliament. The Court is expected to release its decision on Tuesday, January 24.

British politics in the age of Brexit is full of uncertainty. By addressing the nation, the EU, and the wider world, Theresa May sought to provide some insight into the objectives her government will take to Brussels. What remains to be seen, however, is how the EU will behave in negotiations. Looming elections in France and Germany and the rise of populist and nationalist forces across the continent spell bigger problems for the European project, and negotiators may want to use the process to signal that leaving the bloc has serious consequences.