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May’s speech shows why we shouldn’t quit EU at all

by Hugo Dixon | 22.09.2017

Brexiters’ biggest lie was that voting Leave meant taking control. The second biggest was that it would lead to £350 million a week winging its way back from Brussels and ending up with the NHS. In her Florence speech, Theresa May undermined the thin logic behind both lies. She set out a plan that will lead to the loss of control and signalled we will pay a divorce fee of tens of billions pounds.

Meanwhile, 15 months after the referendum and six months after May prematurely triggered Article 50, we are no closer to getting an answer to two of the most important Brexit questions: what is the endgame; and how to stop a hard border in Ireland?

The flip-flop queen has made some more spectacular u-turns. But at least this means she is finally being realistic about some aspects of the Brexit process. The prime minister admits we need a transition period of about two years after we quit the EU to stop the economy falling off a cliff. We’ll probably need even longer. What’s more, she has accepted that we will have to keep paying into the EU’s coffers and follow its rules in order to get the other countries to agree to such a transitional deal.

Big money concession

May’s concession on money is potentially big. She hasn’t just said we’ll make sure no other country suffers financially during the rest of the EU’s seven-year budget cycle, a promise that will cost about €20 billion. She has also said: “The UK will honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership.” The EU thinks that’s another €40 billion.

Although we will presumably try to knock that figure down, the landing range for the final divorce bill is now €20-60 billion. If we manage to split the difference – which would be quite an achievement given the prime minister’s weak negotiating skills – we’ll end up paying €40 billion.

Middling concession on EU citizens

May’s financial concession was matched by a concession on EU citizens’ rights. She accepted that the treaty governing our withdrawal agreement would be fully incorporated into UK law, meaning our courts could refer directly to it. She also said they could take account of European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgments.

This olive branch comes close to what the EU is asking for. Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief negotiator, said yesterday: “Citizens should be able to enforce their rights directly from the withdrawal agreement.” However, he also added that the ECJ would “remain the ultimate guarantor of the agreement”, something the prime minister has yet to accept.

One also wonders why on earth May has spent the last 15 months trying to use EU citizens as pawns in the negotiations, making these valuable people feel unwanted and creating needless ill-will in our relations with the EU.

No progress on Ireland

That said, the prime minister has now moved quite a lot on two of the three issues the EU wants settled before it’s willing to talk about our future relationship. Unfortunately, on the third issue, Northern Ireland, May had only hot air and wishful thinking.

This is unsurprising. Only two practical ways of stopping a hard border across Ireland have so far emerged. One is for the UK to stay in the EU’s customs union permanently. That would mean not being able to sign our own trade deals. The other is for Northern Ireland only to stay in the EU’s customs union. That would involve creating border controls between it and the rest of Britain. This is a devil’s choice.

Whether the EU will conclude next month that May has made enough concessions to move onto talking about the future relationship remains to be seen. But from the rest of the prime minister’s speech, one wonders why she’s so anxious to hurry onto the next stage of the talks.

Creativity is May’s new empty mantra

Despite mentioning the need for creativity or creative solutions 10 times in Florence, May didn’t set out a single creative idea about what our final trading relationship should look like. It looks like “let us be creative” has become May’s latest empty mantra, filling the role previously occupied by “Brexit means Brexit”.

The lack of imaginative thinking isn’t just because creativity isn’t the prime minister’s strong suit. It is because there are no good solutions. Either we damage the economy by losing full access to the EU’s single market; or we lose control by following all the EU’s regulations but without any vote on them, moving from being an influential rule-maker to becoming a vassal-like rule-taker. When May finally decides which way she’s going to jump, she could tear the Tory party apart.

Outside trade, the prime minister did make the important statement that the UK “is unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security”. This involved abandoning an earlier foolish attempt to use security as a bargaining chip.

But beyond that, May didn’t have anything imaginative or creative to say about how we will organise cooperation with our EU partners on fighting terrorism and international crime, standing up to Vladimir Putin and tackling the mass surge of people in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

The sad reality is that, if we quit the EU, we will no longer be sitting at the top table making the decisions. We will be waiting in the ante-room, hoping to catch the other leaders’ attention before they present us with a fait accompli.

Loss of control, more money to Brussels and still no clear view about what Brexit actually means. May’s speech provides yet more evidence why we shouldn’t quit the EU at all.

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Edited by Sam Ashworth-Hayes

7 Responses to “May’s speech shows why we shouldn’t quit EU at all”

  • Why balk at £40billion ? We’re probably going to spend upwards of £80billion on HS2 – which will get travelers up north a whole hour earlier than now. we’re spending another £24billion on renewing trident – which can never be used. We’ve already built one aircraft carrier and another is nearing completion. Problem is, we can only afford 12 aircraft between them. And the ships have cost +£20billion and are sitting ducks in a real shooting war.

    Hey, let’s print some more funny money.

  • The politicians are strewing up UK manufacturing by expecting manufacturers to conform to home standards (common law based) as well as European standards (civil law based) if they want to keep exporting to the EU without having any say in the formulation of the EU standards. Continued full access to the single market is the only way forward for such UK manufacturing.

  • I’d like to back up High Jenkins. I am also 86 years of age and believe that we should stay in the EU, thereby giving the lie to the accepted idea that all old people were leavers !!