The more major speeches Theresa May delivers about Brexit, the more they are aimed at influencing opinion abroad – not here. Her first at 2016’s Tory conference was directed at Conservative MPs and activists. It sought to convince them that this former Remainer meant it when she said that “Brexit means Brexit”. The second at Lancaster House the following January confirmed that she intends to end Britain’s Single Market membership as well as ECJ jurisdiction. The third in Florence last September was crafted mainly for the European Commission, in order to persuade them that “sufficient progress” was being made in the negotiation. Today’s speech in London was directed fairly and squarely at the EU27. Its message in a sentence was: consider how reasonable we are.
It kept in place the foundations and structure that she has previously set out. No ECJ jurisdiction. No Single Market membership. No Customs Union membership – and no Turkey-type arrangement, either. But within those stiff confines she executed some subtle manouevres. On divergence and alignment, she said that there should be “binding commitments” on the latter, while the former wasn’t mentioned directly at all. The example she gave was cunningly chosen: state aid and competition, the very area in which Jeremy Corbyn hankers after divergence. Still, this was a phrase to which Boris Johnson and David Davis objected in Cabinet – and it stayed in the speech. The already vanishingly remote prospect of a Singapore-type near future for Britain is dead.
How a commitment that future governments might overturn can be binding is a mystery that she did not explore. That puzzle is set up by her insistence that the ECJ cannot be the means by which any future disputes are resolved – though it would none the less exercise, under her vision, indirect jurisdiction: the inevitable consequence of seeking associate membership of, say, the European Medicines Agency, the European Chemicals Agency, and the European Aviation Safety Agency, all of which were named in her speech. All in all, May’s attitude to the ECJ is rather like the late Robin Cook’s take on hunting. “I have never ridden to hounds,” this supporter of field sports once said. “But I have certainly ridden horses that have been ridden to hounds”. These agencies are her horses.
The strongest section of the speech was the spotlight that it shone on the Commission’s inconsistencies, double-standards and evasions over “cherry picking” – citing EU deals with Canada, South Korea and the Ukraine. This was done less to cock a snook at Barnier et al than to influence the EU27 countries which Davis and Philip Hammond have been quietly lobbying. On the Irish border, she broke no new ground: clearly, she wanted to keep her proposals for technological solutions, waivers, mutual recognition of standarsds, plus goodwill, in play. On the Customs Union, she repeated the two options that the Government has previously floated. Overall, the speech was notable for far more detail on regulation, divergence, sectors and agencies than its predecessors, and was all the better for it.
The Prime Minister said that “we all need to face up to some hard facts”. Some will stress her insistence that though we can leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ, we cannot escape from its influence. But as we say her real audience wasn’t Leavers who might not like the point, or Remainers who will welcome it – or any British audience at all. It was the EU27. Her mission today was to persuade as many of its members as possible that the Commission’s rhetoric on the UK-Ireland border, and the terms of its draft withdrawal agreement, put ideology over pragmatism, and their own national interests. She wants to get agreement on transition as quickly as possible, in order to move on at last to talks about a free trade deal.
One of the three big Brexit lessons of last year was that, although May has scored some runs in the negotiation to date, the EU has controlled the shape of the game since at least June’s election. The prospect of trade talks has been, in turn, teasingly held out, only then to be tantalisingly snatched back. December’s agreement was greeted with relief by Party members precisely because it seemed to prepare the ground for those trade discussions. But then the EU moved to push these away – not only beyond transition talks but until after a withdrawal agreement is agreed. A fully-fledged trade deal will not be reached by the autumn. Instead, the negotiation will roll on into transition: this will not be an implementation period, because there will be no deal to implement.
The Prime Minister hopes none the less to finalise “heads of agreement” by the autumn. That means getting negotiations about the transition out of the way swiftly: hence her climbdown on EU citizens’ rights post-Brexit itself, about which we will write more tomorrow. We will gradually see whether her speech today has made any difference – whether it will, as intended, move at least some of the EU27, if not France and Germany, if not the Commission itself. The thrust of the immediate reaction from our interlocutors will doubtless be, as before, that May cannot pick cherries from the Single Market. The detail in her speech today exposed the shakiness of that claim. As Boris Johnson has not quite put it, she wants to have her cherries, and eat them.