Response to Theresa May’s Brexit speech

Whilst Theresa May’s speech did strike some positive notes, overall her approach fails to inspire confidence. It was a more detailed speech than most, and detail demands a careful and nuanced response.

Theresa May has taken changes to EU state aid rules off the table. Those same state aid rules prevented meaningful and timely action being taken over SSI in Redcar; this concession is a serious error of judgement from the Prime Minister.

If the UK is pushing keeping EU and UK regulatory standards too closely aligned for the long term, this must surely have a negative impact upon our ability to negotiate good free trade deals with other nations. Does May’s approach not reduce some of the ‘added value’ of regaining that freedom to negotiate independently with third countries?

May’s proposal for associate membership of European Union agencies, and the financial contributions (albeit relatively small) which that would entail, is a dangerous one. It is one which could set a very negative precedent.

Fundamentally, our Prime Minister is taking an approach which is dangerous, and likely to fail. In this speech, just as in others,she comes across as terrified of upsetting the EU. The danger of such an approach is that it can be perceived as weakness. The European Union’s approach in negotiation is to ask for things it knows it won’t get, and force the UK to push back. Theresa May, though, keeps telling us what she ‘won’t’ ask for because the EU won’t want to give. If she does not ask for more, where is the wriggle-room, the room for manoeuvre and compromise? The danger must surely be that the UK will end up compromising on issues which are important to her.

Theresa May used to say that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, but by taking off the table the possibility of walking away from talks, she has effectively done a U-turn on that too. It will be perceived by the European Union side as evidence of weakness.

Nevertheless, there are four points in May’s speech which are worth praising:

1. She is absolutely correct to state that  “the ultimate arbiter of the future UK-EU agreement cannot be the court of either side”. This is vital; we can not – and must not – permit EU courts to overrule our own. This was the most pernicious detail of the EU’s draft Withdrawal Agreement released this week, and it is good that Theresa May has picked up on it.

2. She is correct, also, to insist that the European Union’s approach to trade agreements is misleading: it is right to say that we will not ‘accept the rights of Canada and the obligations of Norway’. It is right to point out that a Canada-style deal would be incompatible with any current proposal for Northern Ireland, and indeed it is right to suggest that the Commission’s inflexible approach is unnecessary.

3. It is correct to put forward constructive suggestions regarding Northern Ireland and the avoidance of a hard border. Such issues can, if the political will exists on both sides, be overcome. The fear is that the European Union wants to create this hurdle rather than to resolve the issue.

4. Finally she is correct to hit back at EU accusations of ‘cherry-picking’. Like snowflakes, no two free trade agreements are alike. If this is cherry-picking, then every free trade agreement in history is cherry-picking.
It is, perhaps, a sign of the ineptitude which this government has shown in recent months that I can say this speech was not quite as bad as might have been expected. When expectations are so low, even a poor speech like this one seems almost reasonable by comparison.