Theresa May has today fired the gun on the Brexit process, beginning a 2-year negotiating period before the UK leaves the EU. Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU, hand delivered the notification letter to President of the European Council Donald Tusk while the Prime Minister gave a statement to Parliament. So has this taught us anything new about Brexit?
Well, not on the face of it. Both the letter and statement reiterated a number of previous commitments: the UK will be leaving the Single Market, May is aiming for the “freest trade possible” under the new trade deal, the UK will “take control” of laws and bring an end to the jurisdiction of the ECJ, it will reduce immigration while ensuring highly skilled workers are still welcomed and Parliament will have a vote on the final deal before it comes into force.
However, the letter does represent a marked shift in tone, and reading between the lines, there are new things to be learnt. In comparison to May’s speech at Lancaster House, it is much more conciliatory towards the EU. May has repeatedly emphasised that the UK is not leaving Europe, and will remain a neighbour to the EU, working collaboratively in a number of areas. She used the phrase “deep and special partnership” seven times in the letter, signalling that this is the Government’s preferred rhetoric going forwards. We can expect this to be used across the front bench from now on.
May’s letter and statement also reflected the extent to which the EU’s messages are starting to land. The Prime Minister specifically noted that the UK understands and respects the importance of the ‘four freedoms’ and cannot “cherry pick” from these. The EU has previously stood firm on this point, growing frustrated with the UK’s ambition to “have its cake and eat it”, and as such May’s offering to Tusk on this point signals a departure from the Government’s previous tough stance. May has also tried to reel in those members of her Cabinet who have argued that the UK ‘crashing out’ of the EU without a deal would not be a disaster by conceding that this outcome is not what either side should seek and that both must work hard to avoid this.
The letter is also significant in what it does not say. While May’s commitment to prioritise reaching a deal on the rights of EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU is not new, many suspected she would go further in the letter, choosing this moment to announce immediate cessation of full citizens’ rights for new EU arrivals in Britain. This would have been the most logical moment for May to do this, to avoid an influx of EU migrants choosing to move to the UK now before it is too late. However, the European Parliament has previously insisted that full rights must apply until Brexit is complete, and the letter’s concession on this point further indicates May’s mood towards the EU as she enters negotiations.
Both letter and statement give us an indication of what May views as one of the UK’s strongest negotiating cards. ‘Security’ was a term used eleven times throughout the letter, with May indicating her commitment to maintain strong cooperation in this area in her statement and linking this point to trade. With security as one of the UK’s strongest suits, May will attempt to use this to secure wins in other trickier areas, knowing that the EU will be keen to retain the UK’s capabilities on this.
Additionally, a point May has gone strong on is her belief that the new partnership deal should take place alongside withdrawal agreements, with both concluded within the 2-year timeframe set out by Article 50. This has previously been a sticking point within the EU, with negotiators indicating that the withdrawal agreement must be concluded first, and the future framework for the UK’s relationship with the EU to be agreed at a later date, and a leaked copy of the European Parliament’s Brexit resolution making clear they feel the same way. It remains to be seen whether the EU will be willing to concede on this.
Finally, among the UK’s own constitutional turmoil, May has thrown a bone to the devolved nations, promising that they will see a significant increase in their decision-making powers as a result of Brexit, and that the Government will consult fully on what these powers should be. Her comments that the process will serve to strengthen the union of four nations that comprise the UK make her message clear: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are currently in this together, whether the devolved nations like it or not.
With the Great Repeal Bill to be published tomorrow, we can expect more information on the Government’s legislative approach to leaving the EU, including the additional pieces of legislation that will be brought forward to address specific issues relating to Brexit. And while Theresa May will breathe a sigh of relief when this week is over, the challenge has really only just begun.