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‘Brexit’ Talks Will Start by End of March, Theresa May Says

Any doubt about Theresa May’s commitment to Brexit has been quashed: What We Learned on The First Day of the Tory Conference in Birmingham.

October 3

0:00
2016

Birmingham , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 3 Oct 2016 -

Outlining a timetable for Britain to leave the European Union in the spring of 2019, Prime Minister Theresa May on Sunday put immigration at the center of her strategy for withdrawal, suggesting that Britain could be headed for a “hard Brexit,” or clean break, from the bloc.

In a speech at the start of the Conservative Party’s annual convention here, Mrs. May said Britain would formally begin exit negotiations by the end of March. Those talks will be governed by a two-year deadline unless all members of the bloc agree to prolong them. Previously, Mrs. May had said only that the talks, under Article 50 of a European Union treaty, would not begin before the end of this year — a delay designed to buy time for the government to work out its negotiating stance.

On Sunday, Mrs. May also began to lay down her priorities for a deal on withdrawal, known as Brexit, including the power to control immigration and reject European Union rules that allow people to move and settle across national frontiers.

“We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully independent, sovereign country,” Mrs. May said to applause from delegates. “We will do what independent, sovereign countries do. We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration. And we will be free to pass our own laws.”

That position strikes at the heart of the usual trade-off by countries that have unfettered access to Europe’s internal market of about 500 million people, but that also accept the freedom of Europeans to cross frontiers and live and work in any member state. While Mrs. May said she wanted the “maximum” scope for British companies to trade inside the European Union’s single market, she added that Britain would not accept the right of European Union law to trump national legislation, another pillar of the single market.

Article 50 by March 2017 - May set herself a deadline for beginning the formal process of departure, the triggering of Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. “There will be no unnecessary delays in invoking Article 50,” May told the conference. “We will invoke it when we are ready. And we will be ready soon.” That, she said, would be by the end of March 2017.

Mrs. May also spoke of striking free-trade deals with new partners, suggesting that Britain would leave Europe’s Customs Union, which lays down common tariffs but prevents member states from making independent arrangements with other countries. Her speech left many details unclear and undoubtedly represents a tough opening bid before next year’s talks, which are likely to be complex and fraught with disagreement.

She argued that the country’s new relationship with the European Union would be unique, and rejected the idea that there was a clear division between a “hard” Brexit and a “soft” one with closer economic ties, although there are signs of deep differences within her cabinet on the issue. Ideally, Mrs. May would like to regain the ability to limit migration from the Continent while keeping full access to the European Union’s single market.

In an interview in The Sun published on Saturday, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, argued that Britain’s policy was “having our cake and eating it.”
Yet across the English Channel, there has been no sign of compromise, and European politicians have made it clear that a trade-off is required from Britain.

EU laws will become U.K. law - May said a “Great Repeal Bill” will be included in the government’s legislative program next year. Rather than repealing EU laws in Britain, it will have the effect of incorporating all existing European legislation into British law. The idea is to give certainty to business and workers. But expect Tory lawmakers to be drawing up lists of which of these laws they would like to repeal first, once Brexit is a reality.

Over all, Mrs. May’s speech suggested that she would emphasize the right to limit immigration even if that meant securing less favorable access to European markets. David Davis, the minister responsible for negotiating Brexit, underscored the position that trading arrangements were not the only, or even the most important, part of the British equation.

“We want to maintain the freest possible trade between us, without betraying the instruction we have received from the British people to take back control of our own affairs,” Mr. Davis told the convention.

Mrs. May insisted in her speech, the first of two to the convention, that Scotland would leave the European Union, too, and had “no opt-out from Brexit.” In the referendum that determined Britain’s exit from the union, the majority of Scots voted to remain. She also announced plans to start the domestic legislative process for Brexit next year by asking Parliament to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, which allowed Britain to join the European Union’s predecessor.

Although this new legal step would not come into effect until Britain left the bloc, it would transfer European legislation, including laws to protect labor rights, into British law. Parliament would then be able to decide at a later point which laws to keep. In a statement, Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the nation’s main business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry, welcomed that development but highlighted the anxieties of many companies.

“With a rapid timetable pointing to an exit from the E.U. in spring 2019, businesses need to know the government’s ambition on the fundamental issues of skills and barrier-free access to E.U. markets as soon as possible,” she said. “Businesses cannot continue to operate in the dark,” she added, because “the decisions they face today are real and pressing.”

There have been warnings in recent weeks from manufacturers, including carmakers that fear they may face tariffs, and from financial services companies that worry about their ability to do business across Europe from London. Carlos Ghosn, the chief executive of Nissan, said last week that he would be unable to make investment decisions in Britain unless the government guaranteed compensation for any tariffs that might be imposed after Brexit.

May plans to play nice with the EU - Other EU leaders wanted her to give them a timescale, and she has. Now she wants them to begin talking seriously about talks, something they have until now said they won’t do. “I hope, and I’ll be saying to them, that now that they know what our timing is going to be – it’s not an exact date but they know it’ll be in the first quarter of next year – that we’ll be able to have some preparatory work, so that once the trigger comes we have a smoother process of negotiation,” she told the BBC. Some of her members of Parliament have been urging her to take a more confrontational line, but she’s resisting that.

Still, the outcome of the June referendum was interpreted by many politicians, including Mrs. May, as a rejection of the European Union’s policy of free movement of people, which has allowed hundreds of thousands from Southern and Eastern Europe to settle in Britain. Mrs. May served as home secretary for six years and devoted much of that time to an ultimately ineffective attempt to reduce immigration.

Normally, there would be no high-profile speeches on the opening Sunday of a Conservative convention, but party leaders hope to get the European Union issue out of the way so they can focus on less contentious subjects during the rest of the gathering, which will conclude on Wednesday. The European Union aims to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services and people across its frontiers, and for many of Europe’s policy makers, it would be a betrayal to allow Britain to enjoy the economic benefits while rejecting free movement of people.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy said it would be “impossible” to give British people more rights than others outside the European Union. The president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, has said that Britain should not be granted any special favors on single-market access and that “any outcome should ensure that all participants are subject to the same rules.”

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