It was about trying to hit the sweet spot between control and accessby Jill Rutter / March 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
On Friday, the prime minister seemed to have found a speechwriter who was much more comfortable with speaking European than whoever wrote her first party conference speech or her effort at Lancaster House. Gone was the language of British exceptionalism, citizens of nowhere and global Britain, replaced by nods to the desire to stay “a modern, open, outward-looking, European democracy.” The prime minister—and her speechwriter—had also been mugging up on their European trade agreements and negotiating texts.
She set out five tests for the final deal. Those tests described the rocks around which Theresa May has to try to steer her government to get there—not alienating Leave voters or her Brexiteers; not tanking the economy; not giving the Scottish nationalists a rocket boost to independence. But she had come to confront her audience with some hard truths: the entire black forest gateau could no longer be had and eaten—there were hard facts to be confronted and trade-offs to be made.
The core trade-off is between control and access. The EU has presented this as a binary choice between Norway-style membership of the single market (access but strict obligations) or Canada (fewer obligations but much restricted access). The prime minister has spent the last year arguing for a bespoke arrangement. In the past that has been represented as the UK wanting “the rights of Norway with the obligations of Canada.” May made clear she knows that is not on the table—and that leaving the single market means that there will be some loss of access. Today’s speech was about trying to locate a sweet spot: enough obligation to satisfy the EU to let the UK trade with as little friction as possible where that matters most; enough freedom to show we have left and also quell fears of EU regulation with no UK input.
The question is whether May’s menu—some commitments to maintain “substantially similar” regulations; some provision for mutual recognition; a willingness to stay under the jurisdiction of some EU agencies; a promise not to undercut; a mechanism for dispute resolution—will tempt enough of the EU27 to leave the guidelines to be published next week flexible enough to accommodate a trade deal like no other. As May pointed out, in a dig at the Commission, they have pointed out the need for an unprecedented deal with the UK where they do not think the precedents suit them on fish. And the EU has set its own precedents in deals with Canada, South Korea and Ukraine. We know that the EU is worried about the prospect of a big regulatory competitor on its doorstep—the EU has its own interests in hugging the UK close post-Brexit.
Having spent months working out what they want to ask for, the UK negotiators need to sell it to their EU counterparts. And they need to be able to make clear that these are opening positions—not bottom lines. Given how much time and effort it took to construct this delicate compromise, will the government be able to manage to handle those negotiations?
Jill Rutter is programme director at the Institute for Government