22nd Oct 2016

UK to start 'hard' EU talks in March

  • May: "We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully independent, sovereign country" (Photo: Reuters)

British leader Theresa May has pledged to start EU exit talks in March and to prioritise British “sovereignty” on immigration over single market access.

She told the Conservative party conference in Birmingham on Sunday (2 October) that “we will invoke Article 50 no later than the end of March next year”.

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“We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully independent, sovereign country,” she said.

“We will do what independent, sovereign countries do. We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration. And we will be free to pass our own laws”.

“Let me be clear: We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again,” she added.

“We are going to be a fully independent, sovereign country - a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts.”

She gave few details on her negotiating tactics, but she said she would seek the “best possible deal” for British businesses keen to keep trading in Europe.

She also said that she would introduce what she called a Great Repeal Act early next year that would, once the talks end, undo the 1972 European Communities Act, which put EU law over and above that of British courts.

The repeal act would instead enshrine all EU law into British law, enabling the UK to take away parts of the legislation at a later stage.

She said there would be no “opt outs” for Scotland or Northern Ireland, where people had voted to stay in the EU, and she again ruled holding out a parliamentary vote on whether to go ahead.

Her speech met with applause from the party faithful.

Clarity welcomed

Donald Tusk, the EU Council leader, Italy, and Germany also welcomed the fact that May’s comments had brought extra “clarity” to the process.

Tusk added, however, that there would be no informal talks, as May had hoped, prior to the Article 50 procedure.

Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, whose country will hold the EU presidency next March, also warned that EU freedom of movement “cannot be decoupled” from single market access.

David Davies, the British minister in charge of Brexit, on Sunday, told the Tory conference that he wanted to “maintain the freest possible trade” with the EU.

But he indicated that if the UK did not get what it wanted, it should be prepared to abandon EU perks. “The clear message from the referendum is this: We must be able to control immigration”, he said.

Liam Fox, the British trade secretary, also told the Tory conference that the UK could survive on its own.

“Most businesses in the world are outside the European Union. The United States is outside the European Union - it doesn’t seem to be seriously hampered in doing business with Europe because it’s not in the customs union,” he said.

Hard talk

Tim Farron, the leader of the pro-European Liberal party, said the Tory remarks amounted to a declaration that “we are going for a hard Brexit” which meant a “disaster for British jobs, businesses, and our economy”.

British business leaders also said that the March 2017 timeline alone does not give enough clarity on future EU relations.

“The prime minister has removed one big question - on timing - but has accelerated an urgent need for answers on others … Businesses cannot continue to operate in the dark”, Carolyn Fairbairn, the head of the Confederation of British Industry, a lobby group, said.

Charles Grant, the head of the London-based think tank the Centre for European Reform, said: “She [May] is trying to square a circle and none of us know how she plans to do it, but British companies will not be in the single market if she limits immigration and spurns or rejects ECJ [EU court] rulings”.

The Article 50 talks are to last at least two years, but Ken Clarke, a pro-EU Tory MP, predicted it would take eight years to complete Britain's EU exit.

He also predicted that Tory eurosceptics would try to push May toward taking an unrealistic position, saying that they would see as a "betrayal" any deal that fell "short of a tribute in gold being presented to the Queen once a year by the EU".

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