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May spells out immigration limits as the first Brexit red line

Thursday, September 1, 2016 - 06:46
39696397 - 31_08_2016 - CORRECTION-BRITAIN-EU-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT-CABINET.jpg
Theresa May set out the first of her red lines for Brexit negotiations, saying she wants to end the free movement of people coming to the UK from the European Union and suggesting she's willing to leave the bloc's single market to do so.

[LONDON] Theresa May set out the first of her red lines for Brexit negotiations, saying she wants to end the free movement of people coming to the UK from the European Union and suggesting she's willing to leave the bloc's single market to do so.

Ministers meeting on Wednesday at Ms May's country residence agreed Britain should seek a bespoke deal with the EU on its own terms, rather than copying those for Norway or Canada, the premier's office said.

The cabinet also decided there's no need for a parliamentary vote before triggering two years of formal exit talks.

The cabinet took "a decisive view that the model we are seeking is one unique to the United Kingdom and not an off-the- shelf solution," Ms May's office said in one of a series of statements from the meeting at Chequers, northwest of London.

"This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade goods and services."

That language suggests that Ms May's key demand in the Brexit negotiations will be ending the right of EU citizens to settle freely in Britain, even if that is at the cost of tariff-free access to the bloc's single market. French President Francois Hollande has repeatedly said that membership of the single market means accepting the right of EU citizens to move to Britain.

The Chequers meeting was the cabinet's first since the summer vacation. Before the break, the premier had charged ministers with identifying possible opportunities from Brexit in their departments. The statements afterward gave no details of the results of their homework.

Ms May opened the talks by repeating a line that is becoming familiar. "We must continue to be very clear that Brexit means Brexit; that we're going to make a success of it," she said.

"That means there's no second referendum; no attempts to sort of stay in the EU by the back door; that we're actually going to deliver on this."

How that happens is the more difficult part. Ms May must pull the UK out of the 28-nation bloc while minimising the damage to the economy, protecting key industries such as finance and negotiating new trade deals with both the EU and countries further afield, including the US, India and China.

Despite Ms May's office's insistence that the UK wants its own deal, Rupert Harrison, a former UK Treasury adviser now at BlackRock Inc, said on Twitter that the statement suggests Britain is headed for one of two types of arrangements.

One model would be akin to Norway's relationship with the bloc albeit accepting less access to the single market in return for tighter immigration controls. The other possibility is Canada's free-trade deal for goods, which is still to be implemented, with an extra provision for British services.

"Bucketloads of detail for devils to hide in," Mr Harrison said.

The other significant announcement was the conclusion that there's no need to hold a parliamentary vote before beginning the formal process for pulling Britain out of the EU, with ministers saying they want to "push ahead" with Brexit.

While opponents of Britain leaving the EU are going to court to argue that Parliament should hold a vote on triggering Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, the cabinet has now formally rejected that idea.

That's been the government's position since the June 23 vote. Lawmakers were told in July that it's within the administration's "prerogative power" to pull the trigger.

But this is the first time it's been spelled out explicitly by Ms May's office.Parliament would still be allowed "a say", Ms May's spokesman said.

"There was a strong emphasis on pushing ahead to Article 50 to lead Britain successfully out of the European Union - with no need for a parliamentary vote," Ms May's office said.

The main opposition Labour Party described the plan to proceed without the approval of Parliament as "sheer high-handed arrogance".

The cabinet statement also rejected the idea that the semi-autonomous governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might have a decisive input on Brexit, even though Ms May has begun consultations with them.

"Cabinet members were clear that it is the United Kingdom's government's decision to establish its terms and on when to trigger Article 50," the premier's office said. Scottish and Northern Irish voters both backed staying in the bloc, in contrast to England and Wales.

The prime minister has repeatedly said she won't formally begin the exit process before the end of this year. When she does so, Britain will have two years to negotiate its departure and new terms for its relationship with the remaining member states.

At the same time, she's made it clear she doesn't want her government to become consumed by Brexit. She wants to focus also on social reforms.

"We want to be a government and a country that works for everyone, and we'll be talking about some of the steps that we need to take in order to build that society that works for everyone," she said at the start of the meeting, adding that the government will look at how to increase productivity and "get tough on irresponsible behavior in big business - again making sure that actually everyone is able to share in the country's prosperity."

BLOOMBERG