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Analysis

Theresa May half abandons “cake and eat it” approach

by Hugo Dixon | 29.03.2017

In her letter triggering Article 50, Theresa May didn’t repeat previous threats, didn’t refuse to pay what we owe the EU, said lots of nice things about common liberal democratic values and admitted we will face “consequences” from quitting the club. She has retreated from Boris Johnson’s idea that we can have our cake and eat it.

The prime minister’s emollient tone – the word “partnership” cropped up a lot – is a welcome change from her previous rhetoric. Gone is the threat to turn Britain into a Singapore-style tax haven if we don’t get our way. Nor was there any repeat of “no deal … is better than a bad deal”.

Nor did May heed the siren calls of hard Brexiters who wanted her to say Britain wouldn’t pay a penny of alimony as part of the divorce deal but would, instead, demand money back from Brussels. Rather, she wrote of a “fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state”.

Word cloud of Theresa May's Article 50 letter to Donald Tusk

A word cloud of Theresa May’s Article 50 letter shows the number of times positive words appear: partnership (16), security (11), agree (10), cooperation (9) – via WordClouds.com

The prime minister also didn’t announce – as some had expected – that today would be the “cut-off date” for determining whether EU citizens resident in the UK would have their rights guaranteed in any deal. It now seems likely that anybody who arrives here by March 2019 will be protected, as demanded by the European Parliament.

Meanwhile, May accepted that “we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy” and that UK companies will, as they trade within the EU, have to align with those rules. This is a healthy dose of realism – even if it undercuts the Leave brigade’s promise to “take back control”.

The softer tone and the more realistic approach means there is now a better chance of avoiding an acrimonious start to negotiations. There’s also a lower risk that we’ll crash out at the end of the two-year period without a deal – a course of action that would be bonkers.

Unrealistic timetable

But May’s ambitions are still unrealistic. In particular, she is pinning a lot of hope on agreeing the terms of our future “deep and special partnership” – which would cover security as well as trade – at the same time as our withdrawal from the EU.

One can understand why the prime minister is so desperate to achieve this. The hardliners in her party and the press wouldn’t let her get away with paying tens of billions of pounds to the EU unless she got good access to its market in return.

But this objective will be nigh impossible to achieve, given that the EU wants us to make substantial progress on the divorce deal before starting to discuss the future. The best May can probably hope for in the next two years is a “framework” agreement sketching out what our future partnership would look like – plus a transitional deal to make sure there isn’t too much bumpiness during the years it will take to nail down the new relationship.

The prime minister is also still being unrealistic about what a deep and special partnership will involve. The EU isn’t just adamant that any deal has to be worse than what we now have so there’s no incentive for other countries to quit the club; both the European Commission and the European Parliament are saying they won’t agree a trade deal if we try to undercut the EU on social, environmental and tax standards.

If May does a deal that ends up shelling out a lot of money and means we still follow many EU rules, but end up with less access for our companies and lose control of the rule-making process, people may start wondering what the point of Brexit is. Is that why the European Parliament is saying we can retract our Article 50 notice if we wish to?

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “Theresa May half abandons “cake and eat it” approach”

  • “But May’s ambitions are still unrealistic. In particular, she is pinning a lot of hope on agreeing the terms of our future “deep and special partnership” – which would cover security as well as trade – at the same time as our withdrawal from the EU.

    “One can understand why the prime minister is so desperate to achieve this. The hardliners in her party and the press wouldn’t let her get away with paying tens of billions of pounds to the EU unless she got good access to its market in return.”

    If Theresa May was so keen on a good deal why didn’t she align giving notice with the French and German elections? No one knows who the next German Chancellor will be until October, so by giving notice now almost six months of the notice period could in fact be a write-off; Martin Schulz might not go along with what’s been suggested by Angela Merkel.

    And if the letter sent to Brussels is any guide, Theresa May has yet to think through just what she wants and what she’s likely to get. If you live in Britain I’d be finding an EU relative whose name and birthplace can secure you an EU passport.

  • If she were being honest and above board she would spell out the “consequences” of leaving, or won’t the hard-liners let her tell the public the harsh reality of their pipe dreams.