Brexit: Theresa May admits UK cannot have ‘exactly what we want’

The British Prime Minister gave a major speech on Brexit outlining the UK's hopes for a future economic partnership with the EU

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 02:  British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech at Mansion House on March 2, 2018 in London, England. Theresa May sets out five tests for the future deal between the UK and the EU.  She believes a broad and deep free trade agreement will be achievable and the EU Referendum was a vote to "take control of our borders, laws and money" ... "not a vote for a distant relationship with our neighbours".  (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said that the UK and the EU cannot have exactly what they want in a major speech on Brexit on Friday.

Outlining the UK’s hopes for a future economic partnership with the EU, Mrs May said she wanted a unique deal, which preserved supply chains and freedom of movement across the Irish border.

The prime minister rejected claims that the UK would seek to “cherry pick” from its current access to Europe. However, she was at pains to suggest that all trade deals are bespoke but that the historic closeness of the ties between Britain and its neighbours dictated continued close links.

“If this is cherry picking, then every trade arrangement is cherry picking,” she told an audience of politicians and journalists at London’s Mansion House.

The event was scheduled as a landmark intervention that would set the tone for the start of detailed talks with Brussels on the transition period after Britain leaves the EU in a little over a year. During the transition, the two sides will have to strike a deal on the permanent trading relationship and if that will allow Britain scope to forge global free trade pacts on its own.

In a significant departure from previous speeches, in which she has consistently extolled the virtues of Brexit, Mrs May said the UK would have to face up to some “hard facts” about the reality of leaving the bloc.

While repeating the government’s plans to leave both the customs union and the single market she told Britons that “life is going to be different”.

She said the UK’s access to the EU’s markets would be “less than it is now” and vice versa.

Speaking about both the UK and the EU, she said: “Neither of us can have exactly what we want.”


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Mrs May said the 2016 Brexit referendum outcome had been a vote to "take control of our borders, laws and money" but "not a vote for a distant relationship with our neighbours".

The speech, which had to be moved from Newcastle to London because of adverse weather conditions, began by discussing “five tests” which will guide the prime minister while she negotiates a trade deal.

  • The agreement must respect the result of the referendum
  • The agreement must be long-lasting
  • The agreement must protect jobs and security
  • The agreement must follow the values of a "modern, open, outward-looking, tolerant, European democracy"
  • The agreement must bring the whole of the UK back together
British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at Mansion House in central London to give a speech on Brexit on March 2, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Tolga AKMEN

Over the past week, the prime minister has come under increasing pressure to find a solution to the problem of the border in Ireland.

The EU has proposed keeping regulatory alignment on the island of Ireland, in order to avoid a hard border being enforced.

However, while repeating her commitment to avoiding a hard border, Mrs May made it clear this would not be an acceptable solution because it would break up the UK’s common market.

“I am not going to let our departure from the European Union do anything to set back the historic progress that we have made in Northern Ireland – nor will I allow anything that would damage the integrity of our precious Union,” she said.

In a final address to the EU, the prime minister said the UK knew exactly what it wanted from a future trade partnership.

“We know what we want, we understand your principles, we have a shared interest in getting this right. So, lets get on with it,” she concluded.

There was a change in tone from Mrs May’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who was delayed by bad weather in Budapest. He tweeted a picture of himself holding the speech with a thumbs up. “Alas I have not been able to listen in person as I hoped as I have been delayed by our common European winter weather - on which we will remain in full alignment,” he said.

Lord Macpherson, who was the most senior Treasury official from 2005 to 2016, accused Mrs May of playing for time with her ideas. “Plus ca change,” he wrote on Twitter. “Leave custom union & single market. Canada style FTA. Fudge on IRE. 2000 page treaty to be agreed c2024.”

Meanwhile on Friday, Mrs May's predecessor David Cameron said he believed the country had made a mistake with voting for Brexit but must maintain close economic ties with the bloc.

“I think we have taken the wrong turn,” he told a crowd at the Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend.

The former prime minister, who resigned in June 2016 on the day the referendum vote was announced, said the country should make the best of the situation.

“We were always unhappy tenants,” he said. “Now we have to be happy and contented neighbours.”