Britain pledges to seek ‘unique’ deal with EU

Decision time: Theresa May told her cabinet to ‘make a success’ of Brexit yesterday. © PA

The UK government has begun making plans for the complex process of leaving the EU. Was June’s referendum result an instruction for fast, radical change, or should ministers be cautious?

Ten weeks have now passed since the UK voted to leave the EU. The country’s new prime minister has repeatedly said ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Now Theresa May’s ministers have begun thrashing out the details behind that statement. At a cabinet meeting at Chequers yesterday, she promised to leave the EU and ‘forge a new role for the UK in the world’.

June’s vote has begun a lengthy process. The prime minister says the UK will not even give the EU notice of its intended withdrawal until at least early 2017 — and possibly much later. Under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, Britain will then have two years to negotiate the terms of its departure; even that could be extended.

What will Brexit involve? Most significantly, the government must consider whether to keep Britain in the European Economic Area, where goods and services may be traded freely. Businesses in the City of London are particularly keen to retain easy access to the single market’s 500m consumers.

But membership also requires allowing EU citizens the right to settle in the UK. During the referendum, one third of Leave voters said their main motivation was for Britain to ‘regain control over immigration and its own borders’. And former minister Nigel Lawson said yesterday the government should ‘stop wasting time trying to negotiate the unnegotiable’ and prioritise trade links elsewhere.

Other concerns include whether to retain EU legislation and the right of EU workers to remain resident in the UK.

There are also questions over the government’s authority to take these decisions, particularly due to Leave’s narrow margin of victory. Law firm Mishcon de Reya has launched court action demanding parliamentary approval before Britain gives its notice — which could cripple Brexit.

May said yesterday there would be ‘no attempts to stay in the EU by the back door’ and she would ‘push ahead’ with Brexit without asking MPs to vote. But other obstacles could arise from a general election or attempts to secure a deal for Scotland.

Parting of ways

Drive a tough bargain, say hardened Brexiteers. The government must respect the will of the 17m people who voted Leave: more than voted for anything else in British history. It has a mandate to loosen ties with Europe and quit the EU. Slowing the process down and questioning how far to withdraw are just ways of trying to overturn the result.

Be careful, warn pro-EU groups such as Open Britain. Almost half the country voted Remain, and Leavers had no unified vision of what would come after the referendum. Politicians are elected to safeguard people’s interests, not pander to populist instincts; they must consider their options thoroughly and be prepared to adapt.

You Decide

  1. Do you see major changes as opportunities or risks?
  2. Does the UK government have a mandate to withdraw from the EU quickly and decisively?

Activities

  1. Write at least five questions about what happens next in the Brexit negotiations. Discuss with a partner what the answers might be and report your ideas to your class.
  2. Fast forward to the day Theresa May activates article 50 of the Lisbon treaty — giving notice that the UK will leave the EU. Write a newspaper report from that day, describing the important issues which you think will arise.

Some People Say...

“Politicians should never try to change too much — it always makes things worse.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is this any more than a silly political game?
The negotiations between the UK and the EU will set the tone for their relationship for years to come. They will affect how easy it is to move between Britain and Europe, how easily the two sides will sell to each other and whether the UK will prioritise other trade relationships. Those questions will affect your prospects, for example in getting a job.
I do not live in the UK. Will the nature of Brexit matter where I live?
Britain’s departure from the EU is a global economic event — stock markets worldwide dipped after the referendum created uncertainty for businesses; the ongoing negotiations could make many people poorer or richer. It has also energised people who feel frustrated with perceived political and economic elites, both in Europe and beyond.

Word Watch

Chequers
The prime minister’s country retreat.
Lisbon treaty
Signed in 2007.
500m
Goods and services may be traded freely across all 28 EU members plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein; Switzerland is a member of the single market but not the EEA.
One third
According to a poll by Lord Ashcroft. ‘The principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK’ was the only answer with more votes.
Narrow
Leave won by 51.9% to 48.1%.
Cripple
Roughly three-quarters of MPs backed a Remain vote.
Push ahead
This weekend, her spokesman said parliament will ‘be involved’ but ‘there is no legal obligation to consult parliament on triggering article 50’.
Election
Labour leadership contender Owen Smith has said he would call a second referendum once a deal is reached. The Liberal Democrats say they will pledge to keep Britain in the EU at the next election.
Scotland
A majority of Scots voted Remain, and the Scottish National Party is investigating how to keep Scottish citizens in the EU.
Open Britain
A rebranding of Britain Stronger In Europe, which campaigned for a Remain vote.

Subjects

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