LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May called on Friday for a wide-ranging free trade deal with the EU after Brexit, but admitted it was time to face the “hard facts” about the economic consequences of leaving the bloc.
In a detailed speech just weeks before starting negotiations on the future partnership with Brussels, May confirmed Britain would leave the European Union’s single market and customs union after Brexit in March 2019.
In its place she called for the “broadest and deepest possible agreement, covering more sectors and co-operating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today.”
But she acknowledged for the first time that Britain may suffer new trade barriers by severing its formal ties, a move driven by a desire to end mass migration and throw off EU rules.
“I want to be straight with people because the reality is we all need to face up to some hard facts… In certain ways our access to each other’s markets will be different,” she said.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed the “clarity” on Britain’s position, as well as “a recognition of trade-offs.
He said her proposals would inform the bloc’s guidelines, which are expected to be drawn up next week before being approved by EU leaders at a summit in three week’s time.
In a speech in London, May suggested the new trade deal would include “binding commitments” to agree some regulations such as on state aid and competition.
She repeated that she wanted to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, insisting there must be an independent arbiter of the agreement.
But in a bid to maintain “as frictionless as possible” trade in goods, May promised to commit to some regulations and minimum standards, while reserving the option for Britain to diverge.
The EU has previously dismissed the bespoke approach as “cherry-picking”, but May pointed out that each of the bloc’s existing trade deals with other countries was slightly different.
May’s Conservative government is divided on how closely Britain should align with the EU, but a leading euroskeptic, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, was quick to back her speech.
The plan would keep close ties but allow Britain “to innovate, to set our own agenda, to make our own laws and to do ambitious free trade deals around the world”, he said on Twitter.
However, opposition Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the government of presiding over “20 wasted months.”
“Theresa May has again failed to bring clarity to the negotiations — and worryingly, she admitted that her approach will reduce our access to European markets,” he wrote on Twitter.