On 17 January, Theresa May gave an outline of the objectives the UK government intends to pursue in its negotiations to leave the European Union. Steve Peers reacts to the contents of the speech, arguing that although some of the speech was valuable, the decision to leave the single market has put politics ahead of the country’s economic interests.
Yesterday’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 interested in listening to the leader of a country that is intending to leave. In particular, 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 than 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 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 the 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 of 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’.
Please read our comments policy before commenting.
Note: This article originally appeared at Steve Peers’ blog, EU Law Analysis. The article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Tom Evans / The Prime Minister’s Office (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Steve Peers – University of Essex
Steve Peers is Professor of Law at the University of Essex.
This is just more of the same old whinging about the outcome of the referendum, masquerading as an objective assessment of the Prime Ministers recent speech.
This is just the same old whinging about any criticism of Brexit, masquerading as a comment about an article the commenter clearly hasn’t bothered to read.
P.S. You need to learn how to use apostrophes.
Remainers are supposed to be cleverer than Leavers – yet still come out with this …….
Surely it can’t be deliberate ….?!?!
1.. “the decision to leave the single market “
…was NOT taken yesterday. It was taken when the Britich people voted to Leave the EU.
How many times does it have to be re-stated : the Single Market c omes with the baggage of:
i) The Right to Settle and bring one’s family
ii) Being subject to the fullbody of EU laws – even when not related to cross-border trade
iii) Being subject to the ECJ
2. “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? “
Straw man !
The UK has offered to co-operate in many spheres (e.g. intelligence, security). That is quite different to being a member and subject to Rules.
3. “The Prime Minister declared her opposition to ‘partial membership of the European Union,…. but there is no such thing as ‘partial’ or ‘associate’ membership of the EU.”
So what do Remainers like you call it when you wnat to “stay in the Single Market”?
4. “the IFS has estimated that the UK will lose 4% of GDP if it leaves the single market without a free trade deal .”
Note: An “estimate” – like the vast majority of Remain’s economic scares.
Anyway, GDP is not all its cracked up to be. Volume is not the same as profit/benefit.
5.1. “May’s description of free movement includes overstated claims about its effect on public services,”
Remainers STILL don’t get it (or live in their own bubble)
* Rising House prices/rents
* Shortage of School places
* Longer waits at the Doctors
* Overcrowded transport & longer journey times
5.2 “ while she cannot bring herself to mention the overall economic benefit derived from EU migrants. “
The study often cited is full of “estimates”, “best guesses”, “assumptions”, “presumptions” etc, etc, etc.
For every Dutch Banker that pays (say) £50,000 in tax – how many field workers does it take to pay the same amount of tax? Hundreds? How many houses do the latter occupy?
6. “But the UK could seek to remain in the single market (like Norway) but leave the customs union.”
How is that “Leaving” the EU ?
7. She also argues that both sides in the referendum made clear it was about the single market.
“ the single market was not on the ballot paper and was not often mentioned. “
a) The SM is an integral part of the EU.
b) You can’t have been listening. Until migration broke through, we heard nothing BUT the claimed economic disaster of leaving the SM
8. “parliamentary involvement in the triggering of Article 50 “
Art. 50 is nothing more than “form-filling” to implement the Referendum decision.
Parliament has, and will continue to debate almost every aspect of our future relationship with the EU – and vote on many of them.
(In 1972, where was the Parliamentary vote BEFORE Heath signed the Treaty of Rome ??)
9. ‘after full scrutiny and proper Parliamentary debate’ …. 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,”
Both Acts and SIs are LAW.
The commitment is to bring ALL existing EU law into UK law – so how can you justify:
“her guarantee to uphold workers’ rights derived from EU law is worth rather less than she suggests “.
Any Parliamentary debate opens up the possibility of “watering down” EU laws, whereas SI’s, enacted “as is” would not.
“a) The SM is an integral part of the EU.
b) You can’t have been listening. Until migration broke through, we heard nothing BUT the claimed economic disaster of leaving the SM”
Point A is meaningless. Countries that aren’t full members of the EU participate in the single market (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland). That’s kind of, you know, the whole debate we’re having – whether we should emulate them, perhaps with a few bells and whistles, or leave the single market entirely. Pretending that question was resolved during the referendum is nonsense.
Point B is the tired old argument that because David Cameron warned about leaving the single market we should ignore the countless figures on the Leave side who pretended we’d continue to be in it after Brexit. It’s hardly surprising that’s how the referendum campaign went. The Remain side emphasised worst case scenarios, the Leave side bent over backwards pretending nothing negative would happen to the economy. Daniel Hannan and others went on record even after the referendum result as saying we should use the Norway model, yet you’re expecting us to believe that what the public voted for was to leave the single market and that there was widespread consensus on that before the vote. That’s complete tosh to put it nicely.
And the only reason this argument exists is because the Leave side are terrified of revisiting the issue by having a referendum on May’s deal. If you ask the public what they actually want then they might say No, so we’ll continue putting words into the mouths of voters, continue to deny them any further say over what happens, and claim anyone who wants to give them a say is “anti-democratic”. Because of course there’s nothing more anti-democratic than giving the public a free vote on an issue.
Oh and to top it all off, you seem to think the argument you’re making here is “clever”. Lord help us.
The usual Remain dissembling ……
“A” “Countries that aren’t full members of the EU participate in the single market (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland)”
Precisely “aren’t full members” & “participate”.
US and Indian exporters “participate” in the SM. Their products have to comply with EU standards or they don’t come in.
Take Norway …..
There are about 22,000 EU laws – but Norway complies with about 7,000 of them – mainly the ones to do with cross-border trade. Norway does NOT adopt all EU rules.
On proposed EU trade rules, Norway’s Brussels Reps get early sight, make comments then adopt – or occasionally do NOT adopt.
That is the essence of sovereignty – not being FORCED to adopt by QMV.
As for “not influencing those Rules”… how much “influence” do we have over any other country’s trade Rules ??. Perhaps some but it’s their decision.
The Referendum was clear LEAVE, LEAVE LEAVE – and the SM is an EU construct with baggage.
The future relationship is a separate matter – and can be debated in Parliament to the nth degree.
If PARLIAMENT chooses NOT to control migration then that is OK-(ish).
What they must NOT do is abrogate decision-making to the EU and adjudication to the ECJ
The electorate must be able to take a view.
“countless figures on the Leave side who pretended we’d continue to be in The SM”
I cannot recall a single one.
I CAN recall some early inept VoteLeave spokesmen hedging – almost as if they didn’t understand the question. (VL promoted few with real knowledge – yet still won !)
“the Leave side bent over backwards pretending nothing negative would happen to the economy.”
Correct (apart from “pretending”). Because we believe that, for the most part “business as usual” is in the interests of German car-makers and French cheese and wine growers (etc)
As for Daniel Hannan, is this one of the frequent playground, mis-characterisations of what a Leaver actually said ??
How about this from DH 29 Oct 2015 – before we knew we had a Referendum:
“Norway’s deal is better than full membership; Switzerland’s is better than Norway’s; but the United Kingdom, being a larger market, as well as an existing member, can expect better terms than either.”
“the Leave side are terrified of revisiting the issue by having a referendum on May’s deal.”
Actually NO – assuming that May restores UK sovereignty:
– the right to make and un-make laws (which includes the final say on migrant numbers)
– A UK supreme court to adjudicate
(mutual recognition of each other’s products and services should be a given)
Pretty much anything else is OK – as long as it doesn’t bind successor government.
““A” “Countries that aren’t full members of the EU participate in the single market (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland)” Precisely “aren’t full members” & “participate”. US and Indian exporters “participate” in the SM. Their products have to comply with EU standards or they don’t come in.”
This is gibberish. You claimed that the “SM is an integral part of the EU” and I’m pointing out the obvious that countries that aren’t EU members (e.g. Norway) are in the single market despite not being EU members. That’s a basic fact that’s known to everyone who discusses this issue seriously. In fact it’s the very foundation of the entire debate we’re having in this country since the referendum: should the UK stay in the single market like Norway or should it leave and try to trade from outside like Canada or the United States. You’ve responded to that mundane point by bizarrely claiming there’s some level of equivalence between Norway and the United States simply because the latter sells products in the EU that comply with EU standards. You also seem to think any country that sells products in the EU is “participating in the single market”. Seriously, go back to the drawing board, have a think about the subject, and come back with something that isn’t complete nonsense and we might be able to have a discussion about it.
You’ve then gone on to churn out a load of standard soundbites that have virtually nothing to do with anything I or anyone else here has said – including odd quotes about “influencing rules” that haven’t been mentioned anywhere that I can see on this page (and certainly not by me). It helps if you read other people’s comments and respond to what they actually say rather than railing against a straw man 24/7, but that is of course standard fare for angry know-nothings on the internet.