Setting out Brexit vision, Britain's May appeals to EU to show flexibility

In a much-anticipated speech, Theresa May mixed a gentler tone, jettisoning an earlier strident tone that Britain would walk away from the Brexit talks, with an appeal to the EU to work together.

FILE: British Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: AFP

LONDON - Prime Minister Theresa May urged the European Union (EU) on Friday to show more flexibility in talks on a future relationship, saying Britain was ready to swallow the“hard facts” of Brexit but did not believe they prevented a successful trade deal.

In a much-anticipated speech, May mixed a gentler tone, jettisoning an earlier strident tone that Britain would walk away from the Brexit talks, with an appeal to the EU to work together to solve some of the more difficult Brexit conundrums.

She tried to tackle a row over EU member Ireland by again offering ways of avoiding a return to the hard border with the British province of Northern Ireland, acknowledging that London would have to maintain regulatory standards with the bloc.

That promise on regulation was one of several“hard facts” along with the suggestion that the European Court of Justice would still play a role after and that Britain might have to pay to get associate membership of EU institutions, that could alarm vocal Brexit campaigners in her party.

But it was, she said, time to be“straight” with people over what was achievable, some 20 months after Britain voted to leave the EU and her government began to try to unravel more than 40 years of union.

“We all need to face up to some hard facts,” May told ambassadors and business leaders in the Mansion House, the 18th-century official home of the Lord Mayor of London in the heart of the capital’s financial district.

“Neither of us can have exactly what we want,” May said.“So we need to strike a new balance. But we will not accept the rights of Canada and the obligations of Norway.”

The speech, entitled “Our Future Partnership”, was an attempt to settle doubt over how Britain sees its future outside the EU and its economic architecture and to try to ease frustrations in Brussels over what they say is a lack of detail.

She again dismissed the‘off-the-shelf’ trading arrangements which the EU already has with countries such as Norway, saying that they did“not provide the best way forward for either the UK or the EU,” she said.

But her vision was little changed from an earlier proposal for Britain to be able to diverge from some of the EU’s rules and regulations while sticking to others which benefit Britain, a plan the bloc has described as“pure illusion”.

“So my message to our friends in Europe is clear. 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,” she said.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, welcomed her speech saying it offered clarity and a recognition of some of the trade-offs needed to agree a trade agreement.


The 61-year-old leader has long kept her cards close to her chest, trying to avoid provoking those who want a clean break with the EU, or others who fear the world’s sixth-largest economy will suffer if barriers are raised against a major trading partner.

A government source said the speech was aimed at showing more pragmatism in the Brexit talks which are now even struggling over the relatively easier part of agreeing a transition period after Britain leaves in March next year.

One Brexit campaigner welcomed the speech and praised the prime minister, who has been under pressure from two warring factions in her Conservative Party, for putting the ball firmly in the EU’s court.

“The EU must now consider whether they want to put rigid doctrine ahead of the mutual interests of their people and those of the UK,” David Jones, a Conservative lawmaker and former junior Brexit minister, told Reuters.
“We must hope that they will be as positive and pragmatic as Theresa May.”

But any difficulties in her approach will be in the detail.

After the EU set out in a draft withdrawal agreement a backup plan that effectively would see Northern Ireland remain part of the EU’s customs union, she was under pressure to come up with a solution.

But a government source said at least one of her proposals of having a customs partnership, where Britain would implement EU tariffs on its border for goods intended for the EU, or a streamlined customs arrangement, where jointly implemented measures would minimize friction, might need more work.

And it is unclear whether Britain having access to the EU’s financial markets in return for having similar standards to those of the EU, would be accepted in Brussels.

Overall, May appealed to the EU to work together.

“Yes, there will be ups and downs in the months ahead. As in any negotiation, no-one will get everything they want. We will not be buffeted by the demands to talk tough or threaten a walkout,” she said.

“By following the course I have set out today, I am confident we will get there and deliver the right outcome for Britain and the EU.”