A major criticism of Theresa May and her government after last June’s Brexit vote is that it allegedly has no plan, is riddled with ‘muddled thinking’ on leaving the European Union (in the words of Britain’s top diplomat in Brussels), or worse. Tuesday’s speech in the grand environs of Lancaster House, setting out her stall for negotiations with Brussels and her vision of a ‘Global Britain’, was supposed to overcome such perceptions. It was an improvement from her oft-repeated quote that ‘Brexit means Brexit’; it was the first time she made it clear that Britain will leave the European Single Market and will not try to hold on to bits of the EU. In short, it is going to be a ‘hard Brexit’. The announcement has major implications for Britain and EU’s economies, but remains enmeshed in various complexities: from immigration to prices to exports to jobs to workers rights to laws and beyond. At the same time, May rolled out an optimistic vision of free trade agreement with the EU and seeking greater engagement with India, Commonwealth and the rest of the world. The contradiction was quickly picked upon by critics as “wanting the cake and eating it too”. The speech revealed the direction in which the Brexit talks will go, but left many – including economists and industry experts – clamouring for detail.
Too many imponderables remain, not least the idea of leaving the European market, yet seeking access to it. The crucial subtext here is that May evidently considers controlling immigration with the EU a more worthy objective (and the real message of the Brexit vote) than remaining in the market. This is because market access comes with the obligation of free movement of people. May’s announcement implies that in the post-Brexit scenario, EU migrants will face similar controls as those faced by Indians and other non-EU citizens. Again, detail on this is missing. Another challenge is taking the United Kingdom out of the market, when Scotland, among the four nations, is overly keen to remain within the market. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has threatened another referendum on independence if Scotland were to be taken out of the market without its consent. And the gigantic task of unpicking EU laws and regulations incorporated in British law over the decades is one that is not even being considered yet. If all goes to plan and May triggers Article 50 in March, the formal exit is scheduled for 2019, which is close to the 2020 general election. It may yet come to pass that due to the many legal, parliamentary and other complexities, the exit is delayed and the next election turns into another vote on Brexit before it is formalised. In short, the imbroglio means that May’s Tuesday speech was easier said than done.