The Director of Cambridge's Centre for European Legal Studies offers his initial reaction to the Prime Minister's address

Her speech started with the pledge to put ‘the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do’. So no special deal for Scotland and no differentiated Brexit.

Kenneth Armstrong

The Prime Minister’s much-anticipated speech on her Government’s objectives for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union confirms what was increasing likely to be the political direction of travel. The UK will not be seeking a relationship with the EU like that giving rise to the European Economic Area agreement between the EU and three EFTA states.

Indeed, it will not seek any type of ‘association agreement’; helpful, given that such agreements require the unanimous consent of all Member States’ governments as well as ratification in all EU states. Instead what the Prime Minister wants is something ‘bespoke’ and British and which is in tune with her central theme of building a truly ‘global Britain’.

What is noteworthy about the speech is that it purports to map an exciting new future for the UK that encompasses not just its future trading relationship with the EU, but also the Commonwealth, the Gulf states and – inspired by the recent words of President-elect Trump – the United States. And a stronger Britain is not to be at the expense of the EU, with the UK wanting the EU to be a success, just not with the UK as a member. All of which is remarkably resonant of UK policy in the 1950s when the UK decided not to join the fledgling EEC because it sought the bigger prize of global trade rather than a compromise of regional economic integration. In respects it is distinctly Churchillian: happy to let true Europeans forge an economic, and maybe even political, union just as long as the UK looks on rather than participates.

Important details remain to be settled including what type of customs arrangements would reduce customs barriers while still permitting the UK to enter into its own free trade deals with non-EU countries. The type, scope and duration of any transitional arrangements seems likely to form a key strand of future negotiations.

The Prime Minister made clear that the final deal will be presented to both Houses of Parliament and will be voted upon. This engagement with Parliament is important in seeking to restore the authority of Parliament as the body to whom government accounts. This is especially significant given calls by some for a second referendum to endorse the final deal. By rejecting another referendum, and by giving Parliament a vote at the end of the process, Theresa May is trying to bring domestic political institutions back to the centre of decision-making and, in so doing, to try and put the populist genie back in the referendum bottle.

What is also striking about the speech is Theresa May’s clear intention of steadying the ship with the iron grip of Unionism. Indeed, her speech started with the pledge to put ‘the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do’. So no special deal for Scotland and no differentiated Brexit. All that is on the menu is the Full British Brexit, complete with HP sauce and a solid 1950s Formica table.

Kenneth Armstrong is a Professor of European Law and heads up the Centre for European Legal Studies. He writes a blog: Brexit Time.

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