"We dare you to impose trade and investment barriers"by John Springford / October 3, 2016 / Leave a comment
Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative party conference yesterday was only slightly less gnomic than her previous statements about Brexit. She announced a “Great Repeal Act,” which, far from ripping up EU laws, will bring them into British statute upon the day of Brexit, so that some may be repealed later. She said that “we are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again,” echoing earlier statements that the British people “do not want free movement to continue as it has in the past,” and that a new immigration system should “ensure that the right to decide who comes to the country resides with the government.”
As many have pointed out, becoming a “independent and sovereign nation” again, ending free movement and the enforcement powers of the European Court of Justice together mean that the UK will leave the Single Market. But May did not abandon a “pick and choose” strategy—maintain close economic ties with the EU in goods, services and capital, while ending the free movement of labour. Quite the opposite: the purpose of her announcement was to signal to the EU that she would try to make the EU27 blink first, and agree to an extensive free trade deal.
Two passages which went largely unnoticed in the hall and post-speech analysis suggest that May will be playing a game of chicken with the EU, daring the EU27 to erect trade barriers against the UK in retaliation for a unilateral withdrawal from free movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The prime minister said that when the Great Repeal Act is in force, Parliament will be free, “subject to international agreements and treaties with other countries and the EU on matters such as trade,” to amend or repeal “any law it chooses.” But because EU laws will now be British laws, thereby continuing after the date of formal Brexit, British businesses and workers will have “maximum certainty,” since the “same rules and laws will apply to them after Brexit as they did before.” If no agreement is reached by the date of Brexit—which will be in March 2019, since May announced that she would push the Article 50 button in March 2017—then Parliament will unilaterally repeal unwanted EU laws in a gradual process, remaining open to imports of goods, services and capital while imposing immigration controls—thereby daring the EU to erect barriers in response. The BBC’s Kamal Ahmed reported that government sources said they were thinking about “grandfathering” the present trade arrangements with the EU and then seeing what the EU’s response is.