Monday 16 December 2019

Theresa May set to take big gamble on a 'clean Brexit'

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Ben Riley-Smith

Fears of a hard Brexit damaging the Irish economy will intensify this week when UK prime minister Theresa May lays out her government's intentions on how they will leave the EU.

May is expected to side with British Eurosceptics and signalling she is prepared to take the UK out of the single market and customs union.

Her speech is also likely to discuss the impact of Brexit on the Border.

In her most significant Brexit speech since taking office, Theresa May will defy critics by indicating she is open to a clean break with the EU. The intervention, which follows pressure to reveal her Brexit plans, is designed to reassure the public and reveal what she wants from talks.

However, the speech risks exposing deep rifts in the Tory party over Europe as she details her vision for Britain's future outside the EU.

In her speech, May is expected to say Britain will:

- be prepared to leave the customs union to secure free trade deals across the world;

- regain full control of its borders even if that means ending single-market membership;

- no longer be bound by European Court of Justice rulings after Brexit, despite claims to the contrary;

- unite after the "division" of the referendum by ditching the terms "leaver" and "remainer".

The content of the speech is being closely guarded however, sources familiar with May's thinking have told reporters she will indicate support for many Eurosceptic demands.

The speech comes after the EU's chief negotiator of Brexit gave the first indication of a softer stance as he conceded the continent needs to retain access to the City of London.

Michel Barnier privately told MEPs that he wanted a "special" relationship between the 27 remaining EU countries and Britain's financial centre after Brexit.

Tory MPs said it showed "commercial self-interest is overtaking mere politics" among EU leaders concerned about the financial implications of cutting themselves off from London.

However, in a tweet, Mr Barnier said he had not been talking about an arrangement with the City of London, one of the world's most important financial markets.

"When asked on equivalence I said: EU would need special vigilance on financial stability risk, not special deal to access the City," he wrote.

British diplomats have in recent weeks been told by their bosses in Westminster that they should expect the UK to be outside the customs unions after Brexit. In its place, May is expected to seek a new customs arrangement that keeps the perks of the EU - specifically, no checks when goods cross the border.

Similarly, by leaving the single market, the UK would no longer be bound by European Court of Justice rulings and could limit immigration. Both issues have already been named as priorities for Brexit talks and are unlikely to be viewed sympathetically by Brussels.

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