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Theresa May finally lays down the ground rules

Divorce talks are finally starting to sound like a reality, as Theresa May has now presented the highly anticipated and perhaps marginally ambitious 12-point Brexit plan. In language that implies a bitter break-up, the Prime Minister made it very clear that any sign of a “bad deal” for Britain will result in her walking away from the negotiations in Brussels. She aims to invoke Article 50, triggering a two-year exit, in just two months, and has finally revealed her proposal for it.

Speculations over Britain joining the “Norway club” can be now put to rest as she confirmed that Britain will leave the EU Single Market, including EEA which guarantees the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. In her speech, Mrs May emphasised that a smooth negotiation would not only be in the national interest, but anything else would be an “act of calamitous self-harm” for the EU. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared.

May hopes to try and keep some form of a relationship with the customs union, to allow a tariff-free movement of goods in the EU. However, specialists including Tom Raines claim that this proposal would “require some creative thinking” to succeed. As an EU member, the UK trades freely with 27 EU countries, a deal worth £513 billion in 2015 alone. Not to mention the additional benefits coming from EU’s preferential trade deal with almost 60 countries on behalf of other Member States. Now, new arrangements have to be made not only with the EU but the 60 non-member states as well.

May has said that the plan is to leave the Single Market. Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/Reuters

Lacking in clarity, the Prime Minister continued to express her compassion for the EU citizens living in Britain by stating that she will guarantee rights “as early as we can.” Making this part of her 12 point plan not that much different or elaborative from the rather ambiguous statements made last year, claiming that the status of EU nationals residing in the UK was “up for negotiations”.

While addressing the question of unity within the United Kingdom, May said she would place the preservation of “our precious union” at the centre of the negotiations with Europe. She aims to deliver a Brexit that “works for the whole of the United Kingdom.” In reality, the EU-UK break up is highlighting the instability of the relationship between Scotland and England and their fundamental differences. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been anything but quiet about her desire to launch another independence referendum. When responding to May’s speech, she made it very clear that Scotland’s interests are not on the same path as those laid out by May on Tuesday, “Scotland did not vote for the direction set out in the Prime Minister’s speech”, she said.

The European Union is a system born in the aftermath of the nationalism-fuelled Second World War, although originally aimed at the economy but through four decades of tight integration, inevitably creating a way of living. After a heritage-defining relationship, “the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union”, May proudly proclaimed this week. This announcement was perceived as comforting by the market, as the pound rose by 1% during the speech. Ultimately however, the long-awaited speech painted a blurry image of a highly complex negotiation with broad objectives but underwhelming precision and details. As Boris Johnson once said, “Britain would like to have its cake and eat it”, in this case Britain wants to control the ‘burden’ of freedom of movement but maintain the beneficial trading arrangements. The heavy-lawyered divorce is set to last until March 2019 with consequential and unavoidable compromises being made along the way.

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