Theresa May’s speech her last chance to set out specifics on Brexit

As time runs out and the British are unable to put forward specifics on Brexit, Andrew Hammond looks at what Theresa May needs to say and do

BRITISH Prime Minister Theresa May will tomorrow give only her third set-piece speech on Brexit.

In what may be her ‘last best chance’ to set out a comprehensive UK exit vision, and kickstart the second phase talks, she badly needs to articulate a clear, coherent and comprehensive Brexit strategy. The reason this is important is that, to date, May’s attempts at taking big steps forward with EU partners continue to be hamstrung by lack of any UK government strategy.

If strategy is a balanced combination of ends, ways and means then the United Kingdom under her leadership has from the start been unclear about what end it wants from Brexit.

Ministers have been unsure of whether they have or can put in place the ways and means to get there. And, to compound the problem, struggled to understand how the EU is thinking and behaving.

It has left Britain badly divided and heading towards what could still be a potentially hard, disorderly Brexit that would see no trade deal agreed between the parties.

This could see an unprecedented breakdown in relations with its close neighbours, trading partners and allies.

Yet May now has a limited window of opportunity this Spring to turn things around with a relatively new French president, and Angela Merkel hoping to form a new German government in coming weeks. With the stakes in play so high, there are at least four fundamental issues that the UK premier needs to tackle in her set-piece speech.

Firstly, she needs to show more honesty about what Britain can and cannot achieve in the two year time frame of the Article 50 process. Hoping that Brexit could be completely settled between March 2017 and 2019 was always unrealistic, hence why a transition period is so important afterward.

Secondly, May needs to dismiss any lingering hopes held by some Brexiteers about bringing about a reordering of European geopolitics. The prospect of the UK’s exit spreading to other EU hasn’t happened — in fact the EU is stronger and more united that ever.

To many key allies like Germany and France, for instance, Brexit is an act of vandalism to Europe.

The failure of far-right populists to win power in France and the Netherlands has strengthened the EU, as has the stronger performance of the European economies, including Ireland.

Third, May needs to better recognise that the EU is changing and that Britain’s place in Europe will be shaped by this dynamic, not just its own plans for Brexit. The UK’s exit is only one of several challenges and opportunities confronting Brussels that includes ongoing pressures facing the Eurozone, Schengen zone, Russian relations, and ties with the United States.

These are first order issues, and the EU needs to recognise it has some glaring weaknesses to remedy too.

How the EU responds in coming years to these issues will help determine its political economy, place in the world, and help frame its future relationship with the UK.

A longer Brexit transition period would allow Britain and the EU time to better align and forge a new, successful relationship.

Fourth, she should not lose sight of domestic politics beyond Brexit. The EU referendum, and its aftermath have consumed UK politics, but for most people their lives are defined by other concerns.

Allowing for a longer transition would give time to focus on real drivers of positive change in UK society such as education, infrastructure, and productivity and help deliver the most prosperous post-EU future for all UK citizens.

If May delivers tomorrow, she will create the political capital and diplomatic space for a smoother pathway in Brexit talks, increasing prospects of a good final deal.

And Brussels and the EU will be obliged to engage more constructively themselves in Brexit negotiations.

To seize the opportunity, May must show statesmanship, putting country above party. This will not be easy given her post-election political weakness.

Losing her majority in June’s election, called in the hope of strengthening her political position, was one of the most disastrous ever UK electoral decisions. The subsequent public infighting shows that it has still not reconciled many key negotiating ‘trade-offs’ by apparently wanting close, favourable post-Brexit ties without the costs.

This underlines also how ministers have failed to educate the public about the challenges and potential opportunities on the Brexit horizon.

The United Kingdom remains a nation of immense potential. But that can only be fulfilled if governed by leaders with a clear strategy for what it is they want to achieve and an ability to direct towards it.

So this speech could be May’s last best chance to get Brexit talks moving at the faster pace that is needed.

The challenges are real, but if she can surmount them, the prize could be a clearer course for positive future relations with European allies. Will she seize the opportunity or let it slip?

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, and an Adviser to ReputationInc

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