LONDON – Britain will quit the EU single market when it leaves the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Tuesday in a decisive speech that set a course for a clean break with the world’s largest trading bloc.
Setting out a vision that could determine Britain’s future for generations and the shape of the EU itself, May answered criticism that she has been coy about her strategy with a 12-point plan for what has been dubbed a “hard Brexit”.
May promised to seek the greatest possible access to European markets but said Britain would aim to establish its own free trade deals with countries far beyond Europe, and impose limits on immigration from the continent.
For the first time, she acknowledged that those measures would require withdrawing from the market of 500 million people, founded on principles of free movement of goods and people.
“I want to be clear: what I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market,” said May, who became prime minister in the turmoil after Britain voted in June to leave the EU. “Instead, we seek the greatest possible access to it through a new comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement.”
The media had been briefed on some of the points in May’s speech since Sunday, and the expectation she would signal a hard Brexit had caused the pound to fall on currency markets from the start of this week.
Markets rallied during the speech itself, however, especially when she announced that parliament would be given a vote on the final terms of Britain’s exit, seen as a steadying influence. Sterling rose 2.9 per cent against the dollar on the day, the biggest rally in a single day since at least 1998.
The Brexit talks are expected to be one of the most complicated negotiations in post-World War Two European history, and the view in Brussels is that her goal of wrapping up a trade deal in two years is ambitious.
There was a lukewarm reception to May’s speech from some political leaders in EU countries, highlighting the arduous task ahead.
“Where is the give for all the take?” asked the Czech Republic’s secretary of state for EU affairs, Tomas Prouza, on Twitter, while EU Council President Donald Tusk lamented what he called a “sad process, surrealistic times”.
However, Germany’s foreign and economy ministers were among many who welcomed the greater clarity provided by the speech after months of guesswork on the continent as to Britain’s intentions.
May’s task will be further complicated by dissent within the United Kingdom, notably in Scotland, where a majority voted to remain in the EU. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has raised the prospect of a new referendum on independence from Britain, which Scottish voters rejected in 2014.
“The UK government cannot be allowed to take us out of the EU and the single market, regardless of the impact on our economy, jobs, living standards … without Scotland having the ability to choose between that and a different future,” said Sturgeon after May’s speech.
May campaigned to remain in the EU before last June’s vote, but since taking over from David Cameron, who quit following his referendum defeat, she has backed the decision to leave.