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Brexit: May calls for bespoke UK-EU trade deal

March 2, 2018

British Prime Minister Theresa May has tried to breathe new life into the Brexit negotiations. The European Union has blamed British officials in recent weeks for a lack of progress during the talks.

Theresa May speech in London on Brexit
Image: Reuters/P. Nicholls

May calls for close UK-EU economic cooperation

The UK and the European Union should agree to an unprecedented economic relationship following Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May said during Friday's highly anticipated Brexit speech.

The speech comes amid growing EU frustration at what it has claimed are unrealistic British demands in divorce talks ahead of March 2019, when the UK plans to leave the bloc.

What May said:

  • The UK's post-Brexit economic partnership with the EU should be deeper than any free trade deal that currently exists. May rejected an agreement based on the existing trade deals Norway and Canada have with the EU: "We need to strike a new balance. But we will not accept the rights of Canada and the obligations of Norway."
  • Brussels and London should agree to a type of Brexit that does not threaten peace in Northern Ireland by reintroducing a hard border between the Republic and the North: "We have been clear all along that we don't want to go back to a hard border."
  • Solving the border problem by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU customs union would be unacceptable, however. Doing so would break up the UK's internal market and "damage the integrity of our precious Union [the UK]."
  • British and EU regulations "will remain substantially similar in the future," while Britain would seek to stay in some EU regulatory agencies. But the British Parliament would have the right to vote on regulations that are different from the continent's. This and customs checks based on new technologies would help ensure trade remains "as frictionless as possible."
  • Any final Brexit treaty with the EU would have to meet five tests: "Implementing the decision of the British people; reaching an enduring solution; protecting our security and prosperity; delivering an outcome that is consistent with the kind of country we want to be; and bringing our country together, strengthening the precious union of all our people."

Barnier welcomes 'clarity:' The EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said he welcomed the "clarity" offered by May's speech. Barnier tweeted: "Clarity about UK leaving the Single Market and Customs Union & recognition of trade-offs will inform EUCO (European Council) guidelines re: future FTA," referring to the proposal EU leaders are set to make next week on a future free trade agreement.

Little progress: May's speech came at a time when Brexit negotiations appear to be making little progress. On Thursday, EU Council President Donald Tusk challenged Britain to present ideas on how to prevent a hard border in Ireland after May rejected an EU proposal to the problem. Tusk had previously said Britain's position was "based on pure illusion" after media outlets reported Britain wanted to pick and choose which EU rules to align with after Brexit.

Read more: Brexit: EU warns Britain of 'unavoidable' trade barriers if it leaves customs union

May's reaction to EU Brexit treaty: Michel Barnier, presented a first draft Brexit treaty on Wednesday that aimed to define the future legal relationship between Britain and the EU after 2019. May called the draft "unacceptable," in part due to a provision that Northern Ireland stay in an EU customs union with if London and Brussels failed to find another solution to the Irish border problem.

Tusk: 'Cake philosophy is still alive'

Read more: Ireland's Brexit border: The devil is in the detail

Why the Irish border is controversial: The government in the Republic of Ireland and some political parties in Northern Ireland have dismissed the return of any checks along the common border. However, London's decision to leave the EU customs union and single market in favor of pursuing its own trade deals means that, under current laws, a hard border in Ireland would be unavoidable.

What happens next: Leaders from the other 27 EU member states are set to decide on a transition period during a summit at the end of March. London and Brussels have agreed there should be a transition, but have yet to settle on the details.

EU-27 leaders are also expected to draw up negotiation guidelines for the post-transition relationship at the summit.

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dm, amp/aw (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)