Brexit: Theresa May finally speaks | The World Weekly
Addressing diplomats in Lancaster House - the plush London mansion where Margaret Thatcher once celebrated the creation of a single European market - was by far the most important moment of Theresa May’s premiership so far. After six months of obfuscation, she has finally laid out the semblance of a Brexit plan, and one which is uncharacteristically bold.
The headline news is that Britain will quit the single market in order to take back control of its borders and laws from Brussels and Luxembourg. Everything Ms. May has said since taking office pointed in this direction, but until Tuesday the government had refused to say so in plain English. Instead of defaulting to World Trade Organisation rules for trade with the EU - so-called ‘hard Brexit’ - the UK will seek an ambitious agreement that sets tariffs at zero.
Ms. May is making two more big gambles. The first is over the customs union. She wants the UK to set its own tariffs and strike trade deals with fast-growing economies elsewhere while retaining “frictionless” trade with the EU. In Boris Johnson speak, this is having your cake and eating it. The second is calling the EU’s bluff by promising to walk away if the talks are not going her way. It is far from clear that the UK has less to lose from a messy divorce.
The speech went down as well as Ms. May could have hoped. Every time she has revealed a card since July, the pound has plummeted but on Tuesday she turned over half her hand and it bounced. The Daily Mail depicted her standing on the EU flag with the Union Jack fluttering at her back, but Brussels also welcomed the newfound clarity. Apart from a sting-in-the-tail threat to turn Britain into an offshore tax haven if the EU is “punitive”, the tone was amicable.
Much remains fuzzy. What will a “customs agreement” look like? How can the Common Travel Area with Ireland remain without opening a backdoor into the UK? Will Mr. Johnson stop mentioning the war? Above all, will the EU cooperate, and can this all be sewn up within two years? Nonetheless, the post-referendum fog is at last beginning to lift.