Today’s speech by Prime Minister Theresa May gave a number of indications as to the government’s intentions as regards implementing Brexit. Overall, while the speech contained some welcome parts, it made fundamentally the wrong decision about the country’s future.
Welcome parts of the speech
The welcome parts of the speech include the argument that it ‘remains overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed’. Indeed, any ‘unravelling’ of the Union between these neighbouring states is not in the economic or security interests of the UK. Her suggestions about what the EU should do next contain much common sense – although it is doubtful that the remaining EU is very interesting in listening to the leader of a country that is intending to leave. In particularly, her complaints about too much ‘uniformity’ and not enough ‘diversity’ will strike some as bizarre – coming from a country with opt-outs on the single currency, Schengen, justice and home affairs (and previously social policy) plus a budget rebate.
The commitment to retain status for EU citizens in the UK is not new, but still welcome. It is disappointing however that there was no commitment to entrench their rights unilaterally, as recently proposed by a group of Leave and Remain supporters in a British Future report. There could be compromise ways to address this: publishing a draft Bill to this effect, or entrenching the rights in law conditional on EU reciprocity. One can only hope that the issue will be addressed at an early stage of the negotiations.
The interest in continued collaboration on research, police cooperation and foreign policy is also welcome, since the UK still has joint interests with other Member States in these fields. But it is content-free: what exactly would the UK like to participate in? How does this square with her assertion that the UK will not be involved with ‘bits’ of the EU?
Single market and customs union
The Prime Minister declared her opposition to ‘partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out.’ But there is no such thing as ‘partial’ or ‘associate’ membership of the EU. May is slaying straw dragons in her own imagination here.
She goes on to confirm her opposition to single market membership (as distinct from single market access) for the UK, for several reasons. It is striking that she makes no assertion that the UK will be better off out of the single market economically. Indeed, the IFS has estimated that the UK will lose 4% of GDP if it leaves the single market without a free trade deal, due to the loss of market access that this entails. While May goes on to say that she seeks a free trade deal, this is bound to entail less trade between the UK and the EU than single market membership, as free trade deals do not remove as many non-tariff barriers as the single market rules.
So what are her reasons? One is control of immigration – and free movement of persons is a non-negotiable condition of the EU for participation in the single market. Here she fails to consider that the European Economic Area (EEA) treaty includes a safeguard on free movement which could be invoked in order to control it. May’s description of free movement includes overstated claims about its effect on public services, ignoring the impact of limited government funding of health and education in recent years – while she cannot bring herself to mention the overall economic benefit derived from EU migrants.
Another is budget contributions. She rules out any budget contributions except for participation in individual programmes. There is no consideration of whether the EEA option – giving money directly to poorer EU countries, with more control over the spending by the contributor – would be desirable in return for increased market access.
Next, there is the role of the ECJ. May states that single market membership ‘would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it still having direct legal authority in our country.’ Let’s not mince words: this is not true. The EEA states are not subject to the ECJ at all, but to the separate EFTA Court. That court has less jurisdiction than the ECJ, and a large number of its rulings are not binding at all. It is only obliged to follow ECJ rulings delivered before 1991.
More broadly, May states that this ‘would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all.’ Again, this is not really true. EEA members are not subject to EU rules on agriculture, foreign policy, fisheries, justice and home affairs (except via separate treaties, in part) or trade with non-EU countries – the very issue which May devotes a large part of her speech to.
This brings me to a false dichotomy on which her speech rests: that there is some sort of choice to be made between EU membership and ‘Global Britain’. In fact, barriers to trade with non-EU countries have been coming down, both due to EU membership of the WTO and due to bilateral trade deals between the EU and non-EU countries. The share of UK trade with non-EU countries has therefore been rising – as Leavers are often quick to point out. Many other EU countries trade more that the UK does with non-EU states – as May herself pointed out last year. So it’s not EU membership that significantly holds back trade with non-EU states.
It is true that inside the EU’s customs union, the UK cannot sign its own trade deals with non-EU states. But the UK could seek to remain in the single market (like Norway) but leave the customs union. Indeed, Norway and other EEA countries have a number of their own trade agreements. In effect, this would be the best of both worlds – maintaining the maximum possible access to the EU’s internal market via means of full participation, while simultaneously having the freedom to sign additional trade deals with non-EU countries.
She also argues that both sides in the referendum made clear it was about the single market. But the single market was not on the ballot paper and was not often mentioned. When it was mentioned, some Leavers, like Dan Hannan, expressly declared that single market membership would not be affected. I recall well a common cut-and-paste statement from Leave supporters in Facebook posts beginning ‘The UK will not be leaving the EEA…’. Although David Cameron stated that leaving the EU meant leaving the single market, why should anyone be bound by his falsehood? And why should one claim made during the campaign be treated as politically binding, while others – notably those which appeared on the side of a bus – are not?
As for the customs union, May proposes a ‘have your cake and eat it’ version – a special deal simplifying border crossings, while being free to sign the UK’s separate international trade deals. Time will tell if this idea interests the EU.
A transitional deal
The Prime Minister accepts that the UK cannot switch immediately to a new arrangement, but cannot bring herself to support a transitional deal, saying ‘[i]nstead, I want us to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the 2-year Article 50 process has concluded’. Such an arrangement would then be phased in. This time frame is unlikely, given that she wants a bespoke deal, involving special arrangements on customs and comprehensive free trade. So what happens if the Brexit Fairy does not deliver by this deadline?
The role of parliament
Early on in the speech, May states that ‘the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement’. Unfortunately, these are empty words. A Martian reading this would assume that she had gone to court to try to ensure parliamentary involvement in the triggering of Article 50 – rather than to block it.
Furthermore, her speech comes in place of any white paper or any other public consultation on the best course to follow after Brexit. She ‘concedes’ that parliament will vote on the final deal, but this is not much of a choice – a free trade deal or nothing – unless there is an option to negotiate a different deal (not enough time) or to stay in the EU on the basis of another referendum on the exit terms (ruled out by the government). In any event, it’s not a real concession: the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act of 2010 makes a form of parliamentary control a legal requirement in principle for most treaties. She made no commitment for a full Act of Parliament to approve the final deal – even though one is required for even minor changes to EU Treaties, and even for the approval of some EU legislation.
So May seeks credit for doing something she was anyway legally required to do. In fact, she deserves blame for previously threatening to ignore the law, and even now involving Parliament as little as possible and planning to offer it a fait accompli.
As for EU legislation converted to UK law, by the future Great Repeal Bill, she states that it will only be changed ‘after full scrutiny and proper Parliamentary debate’. This sounds nice superficially, but falls short of a commitment to use Acts of Parliament on key issues. Rather it sounds like an intention to use Statutory Instruments, which can’t usually be amended by Parliament and are rarely blocked. Without a commitment to use Acts of Parliament, her guarantee to uphold workers’ rights derived from EU law is worth rather less than she suggests; and there is no such commitment as regards environmental law.
The devolved administrations
The Prime Minister states that ‘we will put the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do’ and that she will ‘strengthen our precious Union’. However, her plan necessarily rejects the detailed suggestions of the Scottish government from December (discussed here) for the future EU/UK trade relationship. So not only is the Scottish (and Northern Irish) public’s view on the desirability of Brexit is overridden, but also the Scottish government’s later views on how Brexit should take place are ignored. The Scottish government paper can hardly be ‘considered’ if it has already been overruled.
There’s a pledge not to weaken existing powers of devolved bodies, but there will surely be battles ahead over which level of government should exercise powers over devolved competences returned from the EU. Conversely, there’s no suggestion of any granting any additional devolved powers, which might have been appropriate to address the obviously highly divergent views of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. There’s another pledge to maintain the Common Travel Area between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but this is content-free.
In short, there’s nothing here to ‘strengthen’ the Union at all. Its ‘preservation’ depends solely upon the continued argument that Scotland would be worse off outside the UK’s economic union – while simultaneously maintaining that the UK is better off outside the European version of the same.
Unity and Brexit
The Prime Minister declares that the referendum ‘victors have the responsibility to act magnanimously’, and the losers to accept the result. But she has not shown the slightest magnanimity in her speech today. She dismisses the arguments for staying in the single market made by those – like the Scottish government – who sought to remain in the EU but who believe that single market membership would be a reasonable compromise for a badly divided country.
More broadly, her emollient tone today cannot erase the memory of her conference speech in October – full of sneering references to ‘citizens of the world’ and the dreaded ‘liberal elites’ (cue the Star Wars Imperial March music). It’s a strange world in which Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – graduate of Eton and Balliol College – dismisses people like me – the grandson of a miner, the son and stepson of factory workers – as part of the ‘elite’.
Still less can her speech erase the memory of her Lord Chancellor failing in her statutory duty to defend the independence of the judiciary from screeching headlines about the ‘Enemies of the People’. And if she really believed in magnanimity in concrete terms, she could have announced a unilateral decision to let EU citizens stay in the UK.
Some of the Prime Minister’s speech is valuable – setting the right overall tone on relations with the EU, implicitly rejecting the more harmful 'WTO-only' option, and eschewing (hopefully genuinely) future derision of the 48% who took a different point of view in the referendum. But ultimately she has made the wrong decision on single market participation, putting politics ahead of the country’s economic interests. And key parts of the speech are vague, incorrect, misleading, hypocritical or fantasist. Perhaps we were better off with ‘Brexit means Brexit’.
Barnard & Peers: chapter 27Photo credit: BBC