In her most detailed speech to date since the Brexit vote, Theresa May, the Prime Minister, confirmed that the UK will not remain a member of the single market after it leaves the EU and would instead seek “a bold and ambitious new free trade agreement with Europe for a global Britain”. In what has been coined in recent months as ‘hard Brexit’ by many political commentators, Mrs. May asserted that the UK was completely breaking away from the EU and would not make any agreement that left the nation “half in, half out” of the European project. Mrs May said that the referendum decision was a clear message to the government that the British people wished to “control the number of people coming from Europe” and such a request could not be granted while the UK remained a member of the single market. The Prime Minister also stated that full membership of the customs union would prevent the UK from negotiating its own free trade deals in the future, but aimed to reassure businesses by adding that “tariff free trade with Europe should be as frictionless as possible”. Addressing the wider business community, the Prime Minister said that she did not want UK businesses to be subject to any “cliff edge” where they would be required to make swift and significant operational changes, but instead there would be a long period where measures are phased in to give businesses time to plan ahead accordingly. The Prime Minister confirmed that Article 50 would be triggered in March, thereby beginning the UK’s 2 year formal exit from the EU, stating that the terms of Brexit would be put to a final vote in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Other key points of the speech include the promise that the UK would no longer be bound by the European Court of Justice; the assurance that the Great Repeal Bill would ensure that immediately after Brexit, existing EU-derived laws and regulations would remain in place until Parliament decided to change them; and a desire to guarantee as soon as possible the rights of EU citizens to work and reside in the UK in exchange for similar arrangements for British citizens living in the EU. In addition, Mrs. May said that while she wished to keep the nation informed of on-going negotiations, this would not always be reasonably practicable nor would it be in the interests of the nation to disclose confidential talks with EU leaders.
The Prime Minister’s speech has been met with strong words from her political opponents, with labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accusing the Prime Minister of intending to turn the UK into an off-shore tax haven, while Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said that the Prime Minister has “wrongly presumed that the 51.9% of the British public who had voted to leave the European Union wanted the most extreme version of Brexit possible”. Meanwhile, the Irish government said the UK’s “approach is now firmly that of a country which will have left the EU but which seeks to negotiate a new, close relationship with it”. It added it was “acutely aware of the potential risks and challenges for the Irish economy” but also of “the potential economic opportunities that may arise”.