Change Edition

May risks Brexit row over migration, trade during transition

May risks Brexit row over migration, trade during transition

by Bloomberg 3 min. 18.12.2017 From our online archive
UK Prime Minister Theresa May sets out plan for how proposed Brexit transition period will work, stoking a potential new row with EU as she tries to keep different factions inside Conservative Party on her side.
UK's PM Theresa May and UK Permanent Representative to the EU Tim Barrow arrive at the European union summit in Brussels (AFP)

Theresa May will address Parliament around 3.30pm UK time on Monday, saying that after March 2019 she wants Britain to leave the EU’s single market and customs union while retaining most of the benefits of membership. While the EU has said this will mean abiding by its rules, the prime minister will propose a diverging course in at least two areas.

"During this period we intend to register new arrivals from the EU as preparation for our future immigration system," May will say, according to her office. "And we will prepare for our future independent trade policy by negotiating -- and where possible signing -- trade deals with third countries, which could come into force after the conclusion of the implementation period."

Difficult meetings

Both of those are likely to be points of disagreement in the upcoming negotiations with the EU. But at least that difficulty won’t come until talks resume in 2018. Before then, May faces a difficult series of meetings at home. On Monday, the Cabinet’s Brexit subcommittee is due to discuss for the first time the desired goal for the negotiations; then the whole Cabinet will ponder the same question on Tuesday.

May has so far managed to keep her party and her Cabinet united by not addressing the question of where she’s like the Brexit talks to end up. The Cabinet is split between those such as Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who argue that Britain needs to stay close to the EU -- its major trading partner -- and others, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who say that the country’s best hope lies in setting its own regulations, even if that means tougher trading restrictions.

No 'vassal state'

Johnson fired a fresh salvo over the weekend, using an interview with the Sunday Times to call for a "liberal Brexit." He said the advantages of leaving the EU haven’t been properly outlined to the public. He said the UK must strike a trade deal that gives it the power to discard EU laws, and that failure to do so would render Britain a "vassal state" of Brussels.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (AFP)
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (AFP)

That’s the same phrase that Tory lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg used on Friday to attack the EU’s proposals for the transition period. It may be a concession to those who oppose the form of transition that May’s proposing.

But May doesn’t only have to deal with Conservatives who want to get as far away from the EU as possible. Last week, she suffered her first defeat in Parliament after pro-European Tories rebelled over the level of scrutiny Parliament will get of the final Brexit deal. On Friday, she seemed to have found a way to avert another defeat with a compromise over whether the date of Brexit can be changed. 

The Guardian reported on Sunday that some of these rebels have urged May to form an alliance with Labour Party lawmakers to vote down those in her party who want a so-called "hard Brexit."

Ignition Point

A new possible ignition point for the row within the Conservative Party is a proposal -- reported in Sunday newspapers to have been made by Gove -- to abolish the limits on the hours people can be required to work that were brought in as part of Britain’s EU membership. That would break a promise the Tories made at this year’s election.

Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said it revealed the real goal of those who want maximum distance from the EU. "No one supports 'divergence' to raise standards; only to deregulate," he wrote on Twitter. "Showing their true colours."

Even if the Cabinet can agree on the kind of Brexit it wants, it still has to persuade the EU to agree. Michel Barnier, the chief European negotiator on Brexit, in an interview with Prospect magazine conducted in the days before last week’s summit, repeated that the EU won’t agree to a more favourable deal with the UK than it has with any other countries.

"They have to realise there won’t be any cherry-picking," he said. "We won’t mix up the various scenarios to create a specific one and accommodate their wishes -- mixing, for instance, the advantages of the Norwegian model, member of the single market, with the simple requirements of the Canadian one. No way. They have to face the consequences of their own decision."