6 March 2018

In her third major speech addressing the UK's decision to leave the EU, Prime Minister Theresa May warned both her own hard-line Brexiteers and the European Commission that "you can't always get what you want".

She dismissed the idea of using existing models for economic partnership. "We will not accept the rights of Canada and the obligations of Norway," Mrs May insisted.

She also diluted one of her previous red line issues by admitting that "the decisions of the ECJ will continue to affect us" even after the UK has escaped the jurisdiction of the EU's Court of Justice.

Dismissing the often-repeated accusation that the UK is trying to cherry-pick its way to a better deal outside the EU than it had as a member, Mrs May pointed out that every Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has varying market access.

"If this is cherry-picking," she said, "then every trade arrangement is cherry-picking."

Her speech, available at http://bit.ly/2oIUJze, moved away from the broad declarations of her earlier efforts to provide at least some detail in areas such as future trade in goods and services, continued membership of EU agencies and what will happen with regard to agrifood and fisheries.

Ambition applauded

This was a small step in the right direction, according to the British Ports Association, although it that warned that technology and trusted trader schemes (still, apparently, the Government's favoured solution) will not alone be enough to keep goods flowing freely across borders.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) appreciated the Prime Minister's commitment to supporting the interests of business and enterprise and welcomed the fact that she had been clearer and more realistic than previously on the political choices and economic trade-offs ahead.

Mrs May's emphasis on maintaining common standards and approvals with the EU won the support of EEF, the manufacturers' organisation, and it also highlighted recognition of the critical importance of integrated supply chains.

Stephen Martin, Director General of the Institute of Directors (IoD), praised her ambitious vision of a new partnership, both in terms of access and sectors, noting in particular that the Prime Minister had explicitly referenced the need for binding commitments in areas such as state aid and competition policy.

However, questions raised by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) highlight the areas of the speech where Mrs May still failed to give convincing detail.

Is the transition period going ahead as planned, he asked, will small businesses be able to have easy and cost effective access to the workers they need and can cross-border trade post-Brexit be achieved without additional burdensome paperwork, queues and costs?

Surprisingly, none of the business organisations commented on references in the speech to how the problem of the border in Northern Ireland can be solved.

"We have a responsibility to help find a solution," Mrs May said, "but we can’t do it on our own."

This remains probably the most difficult issue on the negotiating table.