LONDON — Theresa May today rejected growing demands for Britain to retain close ties to EU customs and trade rules after Brexit, as she set out the government’s plans in a major speech in central London.
The prime minister has faced rising calls this week from the EU and Conservative rebel MPs to commit to maintaining close customs arrangements with the EU in order to avoid a hard border with Ireland.
However, speaking at Mansion House, in central London on Friday, May insisted that any Brexit deal must allow Britain to forge new trade deals around the world, even if it means restricted access to EU markets.
The prime minister told an audience, including senior members of her own government, that Britain must “[build] a bold and comprehensive economic partnership with our neighbours in the EU [as well as] reaching out beyond to foster trade agreements with nations across the globe.”
She promised that any trade deal she negotiated would be “the broadest and deepest possible agreement – covering more sectors and co-operating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today.”
She said the EU referendum result was not “a vote for a distant relationship with our neighbours” but insisted that maintaining trade ties with Europe must not come at the cost of restricting Britain’s abilities to strike trade deals elsewhere in the world.
The prime minister’s “road to Brexit” speech is the latest in a series of interventions on Brexit by senior members of her government and comes after a week which has seen tensions rising inside her party on the issue.
On Wednesday Business Insider reported that eight Remain-supporting Conservative MPs had signed an amendment to one of May’s Brexit bills that could force the government to form a new customs union with the EU after Brexit.
Former Conservative minister Stephen Hammond told BI that the amendment, which is being backed by the Labour party, means there is now “undoubtedly a majority” for staying in a customs union with the EU.
However, Brexit-backing Conservative MPs have threatened to force a vote of no confidence in the prime minister if she “backslides” on the customs union, with senior members of her cabinet such as the foreign secretary Boris Johnson also making it a red line in the negotiations.
May today attempted to bring both sides of the Brexit divide together after months of division, saying that her government is now focused on “bringing our country together”.
“There have been many different views and voices on the debate and I’ve listened carefully to them all,” May said.
May’s 5 Brexit “tests”
The prime minister set out five tests which any Brexit deal with the EU must pass:
These are that it will:
- Implement the decision of the British people
- Reach an enduring solution
- Protect our security and prosperity
- Deliver an outcome that is consistent with the kind of country we want to be
- Bring our country together and strengthen the precious union of all our people
May reiterated that Brexit would mean leaving both the single market and customs union but said Britain would be willing to make “strong commitments” to certain EU rules and regulations after it has left the bloc.
This “three baskets” approach — whereby Britain would remain closely aligned with the EU in some parts of the economy but not others — has already been ruled out by the EU.
Earlier this week, the EU riled pro-Brexit MP by proposing keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union if a hard border with the Republic cannot be avoided.May said no British prime minister “could ever agree” to the proposal.