UK Prime Minister Theresa May in a much anticipated speech yesterday set out Britain’s main objectives in forthcoming Brexit negotiations. While the main message was that the UK does have a plan, there was little on what the plan actually looks like. What became clearer though was May’s vision of the post-Brexit future.

The headline was a bold statement: Britain, she said, will leave the EU Single Market and the Customs Union. The alternative future she envisions for the UK is one of internal unity, controlled openness and a reclaimed primacy on the global stage. The country’s relations with the EU will be governed by a free trade agreement which provides extensive access to the Single Market, and sectoral cooperation, notably on security.

May also said that she “will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament”, though until the Supreme Court ruling she will not know if she will be able to even start the negotiations without Parliamentary approval – and omitting to fathom the possibility that Commons or Lords finally disagree.

The wide-ranging objectives (covering everything from a Common Travel Area with Ireland to protecting workers’ rights, to controlling immigration, to striking trade deals to making the UK the best place for science and innovation) will likely please many UK constituents and have received praise from the pro-Brexit camp. How realistic they are is however unclear. In some cases, they appear contradictory. One goal for instance is to provide legal certainty by assimilating the entire body of EU law into domestic law; another is to reject the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. However, much of EU law, such as the Services Directive, frankly does not make sense without the ECJ case-law interpreting it. Another obvious question is whether May’s vision of greater internal UK unity is compatible with taking Scotland (and Northern Ireland) out of the Single Market. Nicola Sturgeon has already stated that such move raises the chances of a referendum for Scottish independence.

In terms of the UK’s future relations with the EU, May presented some of the UK’s negotiating cards for a “good” deal, emphasising Britain’s strengths (the most important being its leadership in innovation in crucial sectors, such as automotive) while reiterating now familiar arguments of the disproportionate damage a “bad” deal would wreck on the EU (while the UK would escape largely unscathed thanks to its new global role and relationships). The result was not likely to be seen as constructive by EU leaders, whose collaboration is at least needed to “avoid a disruptive cliff-edge” in two-years’ time – e.g. with a transitional deal and later with regulatory dialogue under the free trade agreement to discuss elimination of barriers.

The speech adds an extra degree to an already heated debate, which has recently included threats by Chancellor of the Exchequer Hammond to turn the UK into a fiscal haven and a geo-economic competitor for the EU and warnings from the EU side to behave or suffer consequences. Whilst May’s good wishes for the EU and positive approach on security was welcomed by Foreign Ministers of Germany and Italy, the negotiating table seems not to be settling, but turning into a foggy battlefield. If anything, the speech made clear how hard the Brexit process may be.

Photo by Gordon Williams