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May’s Brexit strategy raises questions of feasibility

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British Prime Minister Theresa May lays out her government's priorities for negotiating an exit from the European Union in London, 17 January 2016. Reuters/Kirsty Wigglesworth/Pool

British Prime Minister Theresa May promised a clean break from the European Union on Tuesday, in response to pressure to detail her government’s negotiation strategy. While high on goals and upbeat in tone, May’s speech raises more questions than answers about how her government plans to achieve a successful Brexit.


Theresa May’s speech on leaving the EU confirms the “hard Brexit” approach that was largely expected: a break from the European Court of Justice and the European single market with its freedom of movement rules.

“We do not seek membership in the single market,” May said. “Instead, we seek the greatest possible access to it through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement.”

Remaining in the single market, said May, “would, for all intents and purposes, mean not leaving the EU at all. And that is why both sides in the referendum campaign made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to leave the single market”.

However, the Prime Minister’s insistence on linking the referendum to a vote on the single market raises questions of what the referendum to leave the EU actually means.

“There is a degree of revisionism in what was and was not said during the referendum, and I think various parties said at various points, on the Leave side, that there would or would not be single market membership,” says Kenneth Armstrong, professor of law and Director, Centre for European Legal Studies at Cambridge University.

A larger problem, he says, is how the government, run by a Conservative Party elected in 2015 on promises to preserve, protect and even expand and complete the single market, now bases its mandate on a referendum vote that did not define what leaving the EU actually meant.

“Vote Leave, the people promoting the UK leaving the EU, was not a political party. It wasn’t voted into a manifesto, it has no accountability for anything that was said during the referendum,” Armstrong says. “The government is trying to determine its mandate not in terms of what it said in the general election in 2015, but in some way reading the tea leaves of the referendum result in 2016.”

Some question how negotiating a free trade deal with the EU could happen without returning to EU trade and customs regulations.

“If she wants access to the single market for services, there are going to be a lot of negotiations there, and whatever deal she signs with the EU on free trade and services will have to involve respecting EU regulations,” says Michael Keating, professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen.

“Similarly, she can establish a customs deal, a free trade agreement with the European Union, but unless the UK adopts European product standards, it will be less free than the single market was. So it doesn’t put her in a very strong position in my view.”

No single answer about the single market in the UK

The declaration of a hard Brexit and clean break from the single market also raises questions over the political feasibility of the government’s strategy within the UK.

“A majority of Britons are concerned about free movement, but very few indicate any willingness to pay a financial cost to reducing it,” says Simon Tilford, deputy director of the London-based Centre for European Reform.

“It’s something they express resentment about, but they aren’t actually prepared to leave the single market over it,” he continues. “The referendum victory did not give Theresa May a mandate to take Britain out of the single market and the customs union.”

The Prime Minister did stress the importance of working with Scotland and Northern Ireland, where majorities of voters want to stay in the EU single market, but again did not offer clear proposals for how to make concessions.

“We still don’t know what’s going to happen with the Irish border,” Keating says of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. “They talk about keeping the border open, but until they tell us how that’s going to happen, it doesn’t amount to very much.

Perhaps even more troublesome are proposals of the Scottish government that involve Scotland staying in the single market.

“There’s clearly a radical difference now between the position of the Scottish government and the position of the UK government,” Keating says. “I don’t see any room for compromise on that point.”