May vs Reality: The truth behind Theresa May’s 12 point plan for Brexit


Theresa May has outlined her uncompromising programme for the UK’s exit from the EU, but are her 12 goals really all achievable?

By David Jamieson, Michael Gray and Nathanael Williams

UK PRIME MINISTER Theresa May has outlined an uncompromising case for ‘hard Brexit’, removing the UK’s four nations from all the major institutions of the EU.

European leaders and opposition parties have reacted with incredulity. But how plausible are the 12 goals she has outlined? Can the UK really get whatever it wants on trade? Can the UK itself survive the process?

CommonSpace looks at May’s 12 point plan for Brexit.

  1. May: “We will provide certainty wherever we can.”

Reality: The Tory Government has been mocked mercilessly over six months of indecision when basic questions about Brexit were left unanswered. Theresa May now claims she has set out a broad strategy for what she intends to achieve – exiting the single market with an aim of maximum access, demanding control over migration, a unique deal on the customs union, and some form of transition period.

While May’s speech means we now know most of what the Tories want to achieve, there is a long, uncertain road ahead. 

Any deal has to be agreed by the UK Parliament, European Commission, European Council, and European Parliament. What happens if any of those bodies disagree? The same complex process also applies to any ‘free trade deal’, so those uncertainties are compounded.

  1. May: “Laws will be interpreted by judges not in Luxembourg but in courts across this country.”

Reality: According to the prime minister, the UK will be able to have control of its own law once again by ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

As part of the Great Repeal Act being proposed by the UK Government, laws and the EU legal framework will be repatriated from the EU and enforced by UK courts.

This, in truth, is what happens now. Many have criticised this move suggesting that it is a way for the UK Government to weaken the Human Rights Act and workers’ rights.

  1. May: “Strengthen the precious union between the four nations of the United Kingdom.”

Reality: The Brexit vote – rejected in Scotland and Northern Ireland – reignited previous constitutional challenges for London. The calls for Scottish independence and Irish unification rung out last June. 

At the time, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon said a fresh independence referendum is “highly likely”. There is a majority in the Scottish Parliament in favour – although not, according to polls, in the public at large. The Scottish Government’s proposal for a ‘soft brexit’ has been rejected, and it’s likely that a compromise deal for Scotland won’t get a real hearing when the two government meet this week.

Sturgeon has said that May’s positions in her speech make a second independence referendum more likely. If no deal is reached by the triggering of Article 50 in March, it appears a fresh vote on the union is inevitable. 

  1. May: “Deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic.”

Reality: In her speech May said she has no “preconceived position” on the customs union. This is important for maintaining an open border with Ireland. Brexit opens many logistical challenges for Northern Ireland. 

The UK and the Republic of Ireland both want to keep open travel and trade on the island – and avoid a hard EU border. But can that be guaranteed in the negotiations?

The peace process was based on both states being within the EU – such as the shared citizenship available in the north, and de-escalating border posts. 

The Northern Irish Executive has also broken down for snap elections in March, and passions are running high. Can any solution appease both the unionist and republican communities in the north?

  1. May: “We will get control of the number of people coming to Britain from the EU.”

Reality: Throughout the EU referendum last summer, immigration was seen as a central issue for many leave voters, and the driving force of the campaign.

Although net immigration has reached around 300,000, it is only a minor factor in putting pressure on wages and local services, compared to the much greater pressures created by atacks on trade unions, the banking crisis and austerity cuts since 2010. Immigrants are also net contributors to public services.

The UK will be able to place stronger measures to control net EU immigration, cutting it by as much as 135,000 according to a Cambridge report (though this is unlikely). However this comes at the cost of leaving all other EU institutions. 165,000 people would still be entering from the rest of the world and May has said she will still seek to encourage immigration from the EU.

The Scottish Government has demanded a separate deal on immigration as Scotland, like many parts of the UK with an ageing population, needs more young workers.

  1. May: “We want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain.” 

Reality: Opposition parties have criticised as “crude bargaining” the UK Government’s attempts to reach and agreement with EU member states over the status of their nationals living in the UK only when it has been assured of the status of UK nationals living in Europe.

The UN estimated that there were 1.2m UK citizens living in other EU countries, mainly Spain and 2.9m EU nationals living in the UK as of 2015. Many EU nationals have expressed fears about their legal status in the future, and EU leaders complained of the lack of substance on this issue in the speech.

  1. May: ‘We will ensure that workers rights are fully protected and maintained.’

Reality: One of the more astonishing claims made in May’s speech. The UK Conservative Government spent last year dismantling many workers rights through new anti-trade union legislation. New restrictions include measures to make it more difficult for workers to take industrial action and a new state agency to investigate workers fighting for better conditions

Some leading Conservatives, including UK transport minister Chris Grayling, want even more draconian laws against worker organisation.

The UK has some of the weakest worker protections in the EU, coming 31 out of 34 of the world’s advanced economies according to the OECD.

Limited measures to improve workers’ rights announced last year by May, like putting workers on company boards, have already been ditched.

  1. May: “Bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union.”

Reality: Free trade with the EU’s remaining 27 states is at the crux of May’s dilema over Europe.

The EU currently takes 44 per cent of UK exports and supplies 53 per cent of our imports, meaning it dominates UK trade.

The single market is one of the EU’s ‘four freedoms’ of movement in goods, services, people and capital – all are meant to be accepted or rejected as a package. May is asking for the benefits of the EU while not contributing to the costs.

The EU would be giving the green light to Eurosceptic and nationalist forces across the continent if it acceded to such a favourable deal.

  1. May: “It is time for Britain to get out into the world and rediscover its role as a great, global, trading nation.”

Reality: Attempts to increase trade with countries outside the EU could conflict with the Common External Tariff – an important element of the EU Customs Union – parts of which May is determined to keep in order to maintain free UK trade in Europe. May also wants an independent tariff arrangement with the Word Trade Organisation.

This all leaves her in a familiar bind – her programme for Brexit relies on the assent of many, often hostile, independent actors.

  1. May: “We will also welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research, and technology initiatives.”

Reality: The ambiguity about whether “European partners” means the EU or individual member states may be deliberate, as cooperation in the EU’s expansive science and tech infrastructure comes along with membership. A substantial 8 per cent of EU funds goes into science development, and individual countries are facilitated in cross-continent cooperation.

Some countries, like Switzerland, have bought into EU science programmes, but being outside EU free movement has cut Swiss access by 40 per cent. There is no way for the UK to avoid losing its right to vote on science policy with the loss of its MEPs.

  1. May: “We will continue to work closely with our European allies in foreign and defence policy even as we leave the EU itself.”

Reality: The UK will be out of the loop of many EU military developments in coming years, though this is not much of a surprise as even when the UK remained committed to membership it often resisted greater military integration between states.

May’s insistence that the UK will continue to play a full role through Nato is instructive however. The cold war military alliance took two blows in 2016 – the election of Donald Trump, who is openly sceptical about the future of the alliance, as US President. And brexit, as the EU and Nato have seen increasing cooperation in recent years.

  1. May: “A phased approach, delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit.” 

Reality: May will seek to negotiate an agreed “phased process of implementation” for new arrangements agreed in negotiation. This is to “seek to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge” with a variety of transition periods depending on the issue. May added, however, that this is not “some form of unlimited transitional status” that the UK could become stuck in.

The Tories are stuck between going too fast with Brexit – and causing economic chaos – or going too slow and risking the wrath of the pro-Brexit Tory back-benchers, right-wing tabloids and Ukip. 

Any transition periods have to be agreed in negotiation and aren’t in the Tories gift to organise at their own convenience. The EU’s stance on this will be very important. An agreed transition makes the process orderly; a failure to agree transition timetables will raise the stakes considerably.

Picture courtesy of Number 10

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