British Prime Minister Theresa May called Tuesday for a clean break from the European Union, indicating that her country plans to leave behind the most essential elements of the bloc. After refusing for months to give "a running commentary" on Britain's negotiating strategy, May's speech was the clearest indication to date of the country's departure plans that were set in motion by last June's referendum on Britain's EU ties.
May said that Britain wants to be "the best friend and neighbors to our European partners" but cannot be "half-in, half-out" of the European integration project. "We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave," she said. She went on to reject preexisting models for quasi-membership that have been favored by those seeking "a soft Brexit."
The remarks instead point to a jarring departure. Britain will jettison both the single market - which guarantees the free flow of goods, services and people across national boundaries - as well as the customs union, which dictates the terms of trade between Europe and the outside world.
Such a break has been widely anticipated, though never formally spelled out. Currency markets were relatively stable on Tuesday following drops in the pound over the previous several days as excerpts of May's speech began to circulate.
Britain voted 52-to-48 in June to leave behind the European Union after over four decades membership of the bloc and its precursors. Britain's anti-establishment message was seen as prelude to other populist backlash around the world, led by the election of Donald Trump.
May was a reluctant backer of "remain," but in the months since the vote she has done little to disappoint ardent Brexiteers. She has stressed that British voters want tighter control over immigration, and her words suggest that will be her priority in the breakup talks - even at the expense of economic pain from losing membership in the single market and customs union in the so-to-be 27-nation bloc.
Paul Nuttall, leader of the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, told the BBC that Britain would be able to negotiate favorable trade terms with the EU from outside the bloc because ""they need us more than we need them." But Tim Farron, leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, said May was careening toward "a destructive, hard Brexit and the consequences will be felt by millions of people through higher prices, greater instability and rising fuel costs."
May's speech comes a day after the publication of an interview in Britain's Times of London and Germany's Bild in which U.S. president-elect Trump expresses enthusiasm for a free trade deal between the U.S. and the U.K. Such a deal would only be possible if Britain leaves the customs union.
May, who has been in office since July, has repeatedly promised to trigger the start of Britain's exit talks by the end of March. Once that's done - through a mechanism known as Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty - Britain will have two years to negotiate the terms of its exit with the 27 EU members that remain, spanning from Ireland to Cyprus.
Europe has signaled it will take a hard line with Britain. At a time when other EU countries are flirting with a departure, allowing Britain to keep the benefits of membership while unshackling itself from the burdens could prompt other nations to speed toward the exits.
The Response from UK, EU Press
European Union leaders on Wednesday countered U.K. optimism about a smooth and mutually beneficial divorce between Britain and the EU, declaring that, no matter what British Prime Theresa May thinks, Britain can't dictate the terms of the separation. EU President Donald Tusk warned Britain that it will not be able to "pick-and-choose" the choicest bits of trade and immigration as both sides wade into the negotiations this spring. He said May's Brexit speech on Tuesday, in which she outlined her plans for moving ahead with the divorce, was proof the EU's united stance was working.
May acknowledged she would not be able to break the EU's sacrosanct link between having people and goods move around freely, for she chose to emphasize Britain's full control over its borders and laws as her top priorities.
Tusk said the concession "proves that the unified position of 27 member states on the indivisibility of the single market was finally understood and accepted by London" even before the negotiations start. Such statements poured cold water on buoyant British praise for May's aim for flexible and swift negotiations on top of a "bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the EU."
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta, which holds the rotating EU presidency, insisted such a trade deal could only be negotiated after Britain leaves, which is expected in 2019. EU Affairs Minister Ann Linde said May had made it "very clear that she wants a very hard Brexit" and anticipated difficult negotiations ahead.
And when British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson heard about a reported comment from an aide to French President Francois Hollande that Britain should not expect a better trading relationship once it is out of the bloc, he let off steam. "If Mr. Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War II movie, then I don't think that that is the way forward," Johnson said, in comments that raised hackles elsewhere.
Aiming to calm down tempers, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker noted the EU was "not in a hostile mood" but added it will be tough to negotiate with a longtime EU member that now "will be seen as a third country."
Uncertainty surrounded other aspects of May's Brexit speech - including her promise of a vote for Britain's Parliament on the deal struck with the EU. May and Brexit Secretary David Davis both declined to answer outright when asked what would happen if lawmakers rejected it. "They won't vote it down," Davis told the BBC. "This negotiation will succeed."
It remains unclear, though, whether May can formally begin the process of leaving the EU without Parliament's approval. Britain's Supreme Court says it will give its highly anticipated judgment in a legal battle over Brexit on Jan 24.
Britain's mostly Euroskeptic newspapers, meanwhile, seized on May's suggestion Britain could hurt the EU economically if the bloc imposed a punitive deal.
The Times of London headline said "Give us fair deal or you'll be crushed," while the Daily Mirror summarized May's message as "Give us a deal ... or we'll walk." European newspapers saw the Conservative prime minister's speech as evidence that Britain was turning inwards. Germany's Die Welt ran the front-page headline "Little Britain." In a nod to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, Italy's La Repubblica said: "London gets its wall."