Theresa May lays out her 12 priorities for Brexit negotiations

The important points in the UK prime minister's speech today, explained.

Dylan Brethour
17 January 2017

Press Association/Kirsty Wigglesworth. All rights reserved.UK prime minister Theresa May’s long awaited speech was intended to clarify the future of Brexit negotiations. Did it fulfil its promise? In many ways, May’s speech was a reiteration of earlier pledges to control EU immigration and withdraw from the jurisdiction of the European court of justice. The prime minister has reaffirmed those priorities today, stating: “you cannot control immigration overall when there is free movement from Europe...Brexit must mean control of the number of people coming to Britain from Europe.” May has made clear that these goals cannot be achieved without sacrificing membership in the single market. 

By insisting that Britain will not allow the free movement of people, May has also effectively rejected joining the European Economic Area. Membership in the EEA is premised on free movement, one of the fundamental access points to the single market. If any doubt remained about her intentions, May added that the government does not intend to adopt “a model already enjoyed by other countries.” With even partial membership off the table, the prime minister has signalled that she will pursue a free trade agreement seeking “the greatest possible access” to the single market.

There is less clarity about the future of Britain’s membership in the customs union. Within the EU’s common trading area, goods can cross borders without being subject to tariffs. Member countries are not, however, permitted to negotiate their own trade agreements. Many pro-Brexit campaigners resent this curb on independently negotiated trade agreements. In her speech, the prime minister noted that full membership in the EU has kept Britain from pursuing its own trade negotiations. However, she added: “I do want a customs agreement with the EU.” May also expressed her hopes that Britain would continue to have access to EU markets without being subject to tariffs. Whether this would lead to a partial membership or new agreement altogether remains uncertain. 

Also unclear is what form of immigration system the government would use to replace freedom of movement. While controlling immigration remains at the centre of the Conservative platform, May chose not to elaborate on specificities. The status of EU citizens living in the UK also remains unresolved. May indicated that she would like to guarantee their rights, and those of British citizens in other EU countries, as soon as possible. As of yet, however, she has made no indication when and how this might occur.

The speech did demonstrate the government’s determination to pursue a ‘phased approach’ to Brexit. The prime minister discussed an “implementation period,” though with the added caveat that it would not be indefinite. May stated that she hopes to reach an agreement within article 50’s two-year time frame for negotiations. The prime minister added that the Commons and the Lords will “have their say” on the final agreement. The content of that agreement, however, remains dubious. May did not mention explicitly what, if any, EU programmes the UK would consider remaining a part of. She did, however, note the importance of “practical” sharing of information among police and intelligence services.

While the prime minister's speech had its conciliatory moments, the overall message was blunt. May warned Europe against seeking “punitive” responses to the British exit, adding that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”.

You can read more about how the UK Supreme Court’s ruling on whether parliament has a say in Brexit could affect negotiations in Zaki Nahaboo’s insightful article.

For another perspective, Ted Shrecker explores how Brexit could affect the NHS. He argues that the negotiations could damage the health services and lead to privatization.

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