PM Speech on EU Negotiation: First Take

Joey Jones provides his initial thoughts on Theresa May’s Brexit negotiation speech

The main headline from the speech is that the UK is leaving the single market. That will broadly please Downing Street because it has been implicit for months, was reasonably widely understood and priced in, and should not contribute significantly to volatility.

It removes the UK from what would have been a fruitless attempt to unpick the four freedoms underpinning the single market. (The UK wants to restrict immigration, but other EU countries including Germany had made it clear there was no way the commitment to freedom of movement of people would be up for negotiation.)

The PM’s key political audience is (as ever) a large chunk of disaffected voters in Labour/Tory marginal who might be concerned she will not act on the referendum vote. If she wins them to her side, she will dominate the UK political landscape for some time.

But there was a big focus on the European audience, (including taking questions at the press conference from foreign journalists – a first!). “This is not a confrontation,” she stressed. She talked about the fact she is “Positive… optimistic…” and that there is “goodwill on both sides.” Given that there are important reasons why the EU must be seen to punish the UK, such as deterring other countries from leaving, that may well prove to be an unrealistically sunny take on the negotiation.

There are a couple of areas where unsympathetic commentators will say the UK wish list strays into the “have your cake and eat it too” territory. For example, the PM wants a soft border with the Republic of Ireland and a hard border with everyone else. She also wants a “customs agreement” that would appear to allow the UK the benefits of membership of the customs union and the freedom to negotiate trade deals that comes from being outside that same structure.

The promised parliamentary vote on the deal between the EU and the UK (which would presumably take place in 2019) means party politics will be dominated by this issue right up to the next election. The onus is on Labour to work out a clear position on issues like immigration. But it also means that individual MPs’ views on the details of the negotiation actually matter.