On 17 January 2017, the British government outlined its objectives for the Brexit negotiations which are expected to start in March. In doing so, Prime Minister Theresa May signalled the most dramatic turn in the direction of UK foreign policy in decades, comparable to the 1947 decision to draw down Britain’s military presence “East of Suez” and the 1973 decision to join the Common Market (EEC).
The Prime Minister explained the Brexit vote as a vote for change. Britain was leaving the European Union but not Europe. It was a European country but also a country that had “always looked beyond Europe to the wider world”. May said it was in Britain’s interests that the EU succeed, but Britain’s political traditions were unlike those of other European countries, Britain had no written constitution, and the public expected to be able to hold their governments to account very directly. “Supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life”.
In the negotiations ahead, May said Britain’s objectives would include:
- Control of its own laws with its own judges to interpret them.
- Control of immigration.
- Rights for EU nationals in Britain, and British nationals in the EU.
- Free trade with European markets.
- New trade agreements with other countries.
- Cooperation on crime, terrorism and foreign affairs.
May concluded that Britain wanted “a new strategic partnership between the UK and the EU”, and said she believed this would be possible. But she also warned that those calling for a punitive deal that punished Britain for leaving and tried to discourage other countries from taking the same path would be “an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe”. It would create new barriers to trade with one of the biggest economies in the world, jeopardize investments in Britain by EU companies worth more than half a trillion pounds, lose access for European firms to the financial services of the City of London, risk exports from the EU to Britain worth around L290 billion every year, and disrupt the sophisticated and integrated supply chains upon which many EU companies rely. Nor would it be the “act of a friend”.
Business, May pointed out, wasn’t calling to reverse the result of the Brexit vote but planning to make a success of it. And the House of Commons had voted overwhelmingly “for us to get on with it” as had the overwhelming majority of people. “So that is what we will do”.