Updated Mar 8, 2018

Key questions unresolved in May's latest Brexit speech

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her latest Brexit speech at Mansion House on March 2, 2018, in London, England. Photo: Jonathan Brady / WPA Pool / Getty Images

In her address last Friday about Britain’s impending withdrawal from the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May failed to present a compelling vision for post-Brexit Europe. To lay the groundwork for trade negotiations in Brussels, the speech needed to meet three objectives but accomplished one at most.

May’s goals:

  1. Satisfy the two wings of her party, the pro-European Conservatives and the militant Brexiteers. May had modest success on that score, as both sides gave her speech a cautious welcome. But each wing wants May to pull May further in its own direction, a tension that will only increase in the months ahead.
  2. Resolve the future economic relationship between the U.K. and the EU.
  3. Clarify the U.K.’s larger goals. The question May has consistently dodged is how much autonomy is she prepared to surrender post-Brexit to keep a close trading relationship with the rest of the European Union.

May failed to meet either of her last objectives. On the economy, she expressed her desire for “frictionless” trade with the EU, but rejected the existing means that EU members currently use to achieve this. In a further display of indecision, May dropped her support of “binding commitments” to EU rules, which implies legally enforceable arrangements, opting instead for “strong” commitments, which implies no such thing. Discussion of the UK’s larger objectives was similarly muddled.

What’s next: The U.K. is due to leave the EU next March. To meet that deadline, members must agree to a deal by October. Since the EU insists that at least six months are needed to sort out the economic, technical and legal issues (still an optimistic time frame), that leaves only one month before negotiations must begin.

Peter Kellner is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

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