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What Have We Learned from May’s Brexit Speech?

What Have We Learned from May’s Brexit Speech?

We’ve finally got some answers on Brexit. But are these the answers we want?

More than six months after the referendum, arguably one of the most important events of our generation, prime minister Theresa May has set out her twelve point plan for Brexit negotiations. Overall, the most significant announcement today was undoubtedly that we will be leaving both the single market and the customs union (although May suggested she would look for a bespoke arrangement to replace the latter) – make no mistake, this is a hard Brexit.

May also announced that there will be a vote in both houses of parliament on the final Brexit deal. Although this might sound significant, it’s very unlikely that any deal could be so bad that MPs would prefer to leave the EU without one.

Here are the two important points I took from the PM’s speech today.

1. There will be no compromise on immigration, which means leaving the single market.

May has made good on her promise that immigration reform is a red line. European and UK politicians and commentators have said from the beginning that we could not be members of the single market and end freedom of movement - now we know that the UK will be leaving the single market.

This is an incredibly significant announcement. Leaving the single market means a fundamental change in our relationship with the rest of Europe. This is the scenario that we were warned would damage our economy, and even prominent Brexit campaigners claimed during the referendum campaign that we wouldn’t leave the single market. To illustrate the importance of this announcement: 44% of our exports go to the EU, and thousands of jobs are linked to single market membership. Without a very good trade deal replacing our single market membership, we could see significant job losses, and various tariffs and administrative costs placed on British businesses.

By choosing to leave the single market, May has arguably chosen to put concerns about immigration ahead of the economy. I was also alarmed to hear May claim that there is pressure on public services due to immigration, when the real problem is chronic underfunding - 98% of schools, for example, are facing per pupil funding cuts.

Fundamentally, we know that if we lose the contributions of EU migrants to the UK, we could see serious damage to our economy, our NHS and communities.

2. May was vague on trade.

As a member of the EU, the UK does not make trade deals independently, and leaving the EU means that the UK will be making its own trade deals. May has presented this as a golden opportunity, and central to her claim that Britain will become more outward facing and internationalist after Brexit.  

However, trade deals take a long time to complete - it’s taken seven years for the EU and Canada to reach agreement on a trade deal. A quick trade deal is a bad trade deal, and we should be very cautious of hasty attempts to get deals agreed with countries like the US, where there is an imbalance of negotiating power in their favour, and protections for workers and the environment can be far lower than ours.    

Although we’ve learnt more about the government’s Brexit plans in this speech than in the six months after the referendum, and the PM pledged more certainty in the negotiation process, this announcement itself creates more uncertainty. The UK outside the single market is a blank page, and there are a lot of things that we don’t know, including how this will impact the rights of thousands of essential EU workers, the thousands of jobs linked to single market membership, businesses in the UK, the cost of living if tariffs are introduced on imported foods, financial services, and so on. It’s a long list. 

Here at CLASS we’ll be watching negotiations closely and focusing on how Brexit will affect every day people in the UK, so look out for more of our analysis on the Brexit process.