Theresa May’s Brexit speech on Friday is impractically contradictory and under-specified, says Bruce Newsome. It forms part of the broader malaise surrounding her leadership: one characterised by indecision, ambiguity and incompetence.
Theresa May delivered a rare speech on Brexit – a long one too (more than 6,700 words by my count), but it was long on pleasing platitudes, leaving the policy scattered and stilted. When the scatter plots are put together, they turn out to be contradictory or under-specified.
What does she want?
In the first pages, she claimed that she would apply “five tests” to any agreement with the EU, but they’re just double-speak, intended to reassure everybody without committing to anything:
1. taking back control without distancing ourselves;
2. a separation but a new and lasting relationship;
3. a different relationship but with the same economic benefits;
4. outward-looking but true to our neighbours; and
5. “strengthen[ing] our union of nations and our union of people.”
She later offered “five foundations that must underpin our trading relationship,” but these are contradicted by what she says elsewhere:
1. “reciprocal binding commitments” (but she has already surrendered reciprocity in some areas, such as the right of British citizens to remain in the EU);
2. an “arbitration mechanism that is completely independent” (but she says she will continue EU jurisdiction over the industries that she wants to keep in the customs union, such as aviation);
3. “ongoing dialogue…the means to consult each other regularly” (this is a complete red herring – for hundreds of years European countries shared such “means”, such as ambassadors);
4. “an arrangement for data protection” (this is the wrong end of the stick: if she sticks with EU law, she sticks with EU jurisdiction, which has not favoured Britain in disputes as simple as Britain’s desire for the arrest of a terrorist suspect on the continent, whose identity must be redacted under privacy laws in Germany and other member states);
5. “maintain the links between our people” (we had links before the EU – trade, tourism, and other flows, which are guaranteed at most basic level by superior organizations such as the World Trade Organization, and she already conceded immigration rights for EU citizens that she did not earn for Britons, so her concern here seems hypocritical).
The EU’s high ground
May’s speech concluded: “We know what we want. We understand your principles. We have a shared interest in getting this right. So let’s get on with it.”
That conclusion epitomises the childish optimism of this speech. No, we still don’t know what May wants in the specificity that would be of any use to a legally binding agreement, so the EU continues to take the moral high ground by demanding specificity.
The Times fairly characterized the speech as a “long-awaited strategy announcement” that won “plaudits at home,” but was dismissed by EU officials.
The European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator (Guy Verhofstadt) criticized the speech for “vague aspirations” without “credible legislative proposals” and warned of “little appetite to renegotiate the rules of the single market to satisfy a compromise crafted to placate a divided Conservative Party.” That’s the most accurate description I’ve heard from him.
The European Commission’s chief negotiator (Michel Barnier) tweeted his welcome of “clarity about UK leaving single market and customs union, and recognition of trade-offs”, but was referring to how May’s promises of compromise “will inform” his negotiating strategy.
The contradictions in May’s new speech are best epitomised by its references to the “interim agreement” that May signed in December 2017. The EU thinks that it committed Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union; May’s speech confirms that she thinks it did not.
Yet her speech kept referring to the interim deal as a successful agreement – “no-one should be in any doubt about our commitment,” even while she effectively reinterpreted it.
Consequently, her audience can read her any way they want. The European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator (Guy Verhofstadt) immediately welcomed “May’s re-confirmation of our December agreement on the Irish border” although he still wants Britain to put it into legislation. The Irish Prime Minister quickly said he wanted “more detailed and realistic proposals from the UK.” The Democratic Unionists naturally welcomed May’s promise not to keep Northern Ireland within the EU’s customs union, but May has not specified the border beyond a vague compromise between customs union and sovereignty.
Her new speech nominally focused on the trading relationship but flunked that too.
The BBC’s Business editor reported that the speech “made some pragmatic concessions to the realities of trade”, of which “the most eye-catching passage for business” was the possibility of keeping certain industries (such as aviation) under European regulation, but he warned that her version of the customs union still “sounds mindbogglingly complex and business will need to see much more detail.”
Stepping into this vacuum was Andrew Lilico of Europe Economics, who labelled May’s intent to keep some industries under European regulation as “cherry-picked managed divergence”, with which the EU cannot agree.
She offered two variations of the current customs union, which she completed in a few sentences. These are impractically vague, except for some clauses that contradict other parts of the speech, such as:
1. separation from the customs union but not the “frictionless” border,
2. freedom to negotiate freely outside the EU while staying within the EU’s trading block,
3. “a meaningful independent trade policy” but “the broadest and deepest possible partnership” with the EU,
4. national control of trade but without “the introduction of any tariffs or quotas”.
The problem is not that these things are not negotiable, but that she still hasn’t resolved the contradictions or specified the compromise point.
In the final paragraphs, she characterized her next agreement with the EU as “a beginning, not an ending”, “nor is Brexit an end in itself.” She admits “ups and downs in the months ahead.”
That’s an under-estimate. Her premiership has lasted 20 months already – she didn’t get to an interim deal with the EU until her 17th month of premiership (December 2017), which was immediately disputed and is still being disputed.
This new speech doesn’t resolve anything but adds new contradictions. She asks us to have faith in “calm, patient discussion” and refuses “the demands to talk tough or threaten a walk-out.” She wants to be trusted to deliver Brexit while reacting like a barmy Brexit-basher.
Theresa May will drag us through years of indecisive, vague, under-specified negotiations until she gives up the premiership.