Theresa May's Post-Salzburg Speech, Between the Lines

By Campaign Agent George Royce

Last week, at the Salzburg Summit, the EU27 met to discuss a range of topics concerning the EU, chief among them was of course Brexit. After months of internal strife within the Tory Party, the membership abandoning Theresa May over her Chequers plan dubbed the ‘Brexit Betrayal’, she finally met with other member heads of state. Her plan was surprisingly rejected by the EU, as it would simply not be acceptable for Britain to be ‘half in and half out’, as Donald Tusk said. He also called it a ‘worst of all worlds’ option.

In response, Theresa May made a speech that was due to be held inside No.10 at 13:45 pm, but was comically delayed when cameras and journalists were ushered into a room with no power. In the speech May first started off by saying the negotiations were always going to be tough but that “there are two big issues where we remain a long way apart.” As she went on, she addressed the first and perhaps most serious matter, of the EU’s wish to simply keep the UK in the European Economic Area and also the Customs Union.

This was referring to the proposal the EU offered to keep Northern Ireland in the EU by keeping the border fully open with no checks on products and customs. This option is known as the Northern Irish Backstop. However, this would simply not be in accordance with the UK taking back control of its borders and controlling immigration. Therefore, not able to make its own immigration policy either, as the Freedom of Movement would still be in effect as EU workers are part and parcel of the EU’s open border policy.

The second issue is the one that has caused the most vicious fighting in the Tory Party. The EU has proposed to have a basic free trade agreement that would introduce checks at the UK and EU border. However, this would mean Northern Ireland remains as part of the EU, thereby splitting the UK and effectively destroying the Union. In order to not break the legality of Article 50, the rest of the UK would leave and the EU would place a border in the Irish Sea, cutting Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK. In other words, ‘split the Union or don’t leave at all.’

Theresa May went on to say Parliament has already rejected this idea, inferring that “Creating any form of customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would not respect that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, in line with the principle of consent, as set out clearly in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

The important part is that May’s Chequers plan offered to collect tariffs on behalf of the EU, and also become a rule-taker; implementing any new laws the EU wanted. Brexit supporters like Jacob Rees-Mogg have explained this would mean the UK would become a vassal state, not having any say or vote over which laws are passed. Essentially, May offered to remain half inside the Customs Union. Whether one agrees with this or not, the Northern Irish border would remain open and not moved into the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland would technically be inside the EU, but also remain part of the UK. Hence, Brexiteers and Tusk dubbing the Chequers plan ‘half in, half out’. Prominent Brexiteers in the ERG have attacked the Prime Minister for going back on her Lancaster House speech and accused her of aiming for ‘BRINO’ i.e. Brexit in name only. It must be noted that both Leavers and Remainers disagree strongly with the Chequers plan, judging by the overwhelming negative responses shown in almost every poll since it was publicly released.

She went on to sight differences between her stance and the EU’s, noting that “Yesterday Donald Tusk said our proposals would undermine the single market. He didn’t explain how in any detail or make any counter-proposal. So we are at an impasse.” Although recently flirting with the idea, May has not specifically cited or worded in Chequers any kind of Free Movement. However, despite the EU knowing that they could wedge their foot through the door on this issue as Chequers does technically leave this option open as aforementioned, Tusk would much prefer a guarantee.

And this is the heart of the matter. Despite Chequers pretty much keeping the UK as part of the EU, it technically puts the UK ‘half in and half out’. The reason why the EU has rejected this is because the EU wants the UK to be fully in, or it can go whistle. 

After explaining that even during the transitional period, there could be no hard border where there a checks, she proclaimed that both sides should not ask the ‘unacceptable’ of the other. “We cannot accept anything that threatens the integrity of our union, just as they cannot accept anything that threatens the integrity of theirs.”

She and therefore the UK was shown incredible disrespect. She touched on this by saying “Throughout this process, I have treated the EU with nothing but respect. The UK expects the same. A good relationship at the end of this process depends on it.” Again, she sounded bewildered by not receiving a detailed explanation for why her plans wouldn’t work, “At this late stage in the negotiations, it is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals without a detailed explanation and counter proposals.” Brexiteers and Remainers are in agreement that Chequers won’t work because it doesn’t deliver a true Brexit according to May’s own Lancaster speech, and also the EU wouldn’t take kindly to the UK ‘cherry picking’. Quite clearly, the EU and the Prime Minister aren’t reading from the same hymn book and astonishingly, Brexiteers and the EU are on the same page.

Towards the end of her brief 7-minute long speech, she made statements pertaining to the UK becoming closer to reaching a No Deal with the EU. Firstly, she spoke to the 3 million EU citizens living and working in the UK. “First, there are over 3 million EU citizens living in the UK who will be understandably worried about what the outcome of yesterday’s summit means for their future. I want to be clear with you that even in the event of no deal your rights will be protected. You are our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues. We want you to stay.” She also reassured the people of Northern Ireland that “in the event of no deal we will do everything in our power to prevent a return to a hard border.”

Closing her speech, she made it clear that the ball is now in the EU’s court. “We need serious engagement on resolving the two big problems in the negotiations. We stand ready.”

What one can take from this speech is that Theresa May has not abandoned Chequers, despite everyone else now doing so. One cannot help but think that after her abject humiliation, she has tried to sound tough on the EU, just 9 days out from the Tory Party Conference in Birmingham. However, both the EU’s proposals have been denied and now after bending over backwards, the Prime Minister’s proposal has also been rejected. The only plan  acceptable to both seems to be exactly what David Davis created in his White Paper, called ‘SuperCanada’ or ‘CETA plus plus plus’. The only problem is, Davis resigned because May was the one who rejected it.

 Sources and further reading

Image Credit: EEUU2017 @ FLICKR

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