Through careful language, Theresa May leaves her options open on Brexit

I’ve mentioned before that Theresa May is, as one might expect, using very careful language on post-Brexit options.

In her leadership launch statement, she said:

…as we conduct our negotiations, it must be a priority to allow British companies to trade with the single market in goods and services – but also to regain more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe.

“Regain more control of the numbers” doesn’t necessarily mean “stop free movement”. There’s wiggle room between those two points.

In her first PMQs yesterday, there was an interesting exchange with Sir Edward Leigh:

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
Q4. I agree with the Prime Minister. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] We are leaving the EU and we are going to make a success of it, so will she make my day special by saying that she is prepared to reject staying in the single regulated market and to offer instead to our friends in Europe a free trade deal that is very much in their interests? Let us take back control. [905972]
Hon. Members
Hear, hear!
The Prime Minister
I am tempted to say that I probably ought to sit down and enjoy that for the rest of the day. My hon. Friend has made my day, and I hope that I can make his day by wishing him a very happy birthday. I assure him that as we look at the result of the referendum, I am very clear that Brexit does mean Brexit, and as he says, we will make a success of it. In negotiating the deal, we need to ensure that we listen to what people have said about the need for controls on free movement, and that we also negotiate the right and best deal for trade in goods and services for the British people.

“Listen to what people have said about the need for controls on free movement” isn’t the same as ending free movement or leaving the single market/European Economic Area.

So, the Prime Minister is leaving the way open for some form of compromise which could involve being in the single market, or at least having access to the single market, while involving some “controls on free movement”. She didn’t confirm that she wants to “reject staying” in the single market, and go down the full free trade deal route, when asked to do so by Sir Edward.

As I have explained before, the European Economic Area agreement does include an “emergency brake” which could be described as a “control on free movement” and there would be a number of other options open to the UK to implement some “controls on free movement” within the EEA.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • There is no “compromise” between single market access and freedom of movement that won’t collapse the City’s – and by extension, the country’s – economy.

    If we want to allow the City’s economy to continue, they need to retain passporting rights. And France and Germany will only allow that if we continue to allow freedom of movement.

  • Mark Goodrich 21st Jul '16 - 12:10pm

    Hi Paul

    I don’t think there is the power to restrict issuance of NI numbers to EEA citizens (assuming we are in under a Norway deal). When you last referenced in your previous piece, you linked to a Jonathan Portes piece which was talking about options for control of free movement even outside the EEA under the so-call EEA-minus option (his point being that it wouldn’t be that easy). It seems to me that if were are within the EEA, we can’t refuse to issue NI numbers to workers from those countries (because that would prevent their freedom to work).

  • David Allen 21st Jul '16 - 3:09pm

    On the question of control of free movement, the EEA Article 112 doesn’t really offer significant concessions. Its “emergency brake” has to be renewed every 3 months, and is to be applied in the context of Schengen membership, i.e. a temporary border control on a normally open border. There are better ideas, some of which you alluded to.

    To note: We permit free movement within our own nation. Ever since Dick Whittington, our ambitious young have travelled to London to seek fame and fortune – without facing special anti-migrant curbs on benefits! Yet “North – South” migration is arguably a far bigger problem, both for our over-populated and depopulated regions, than immigration from the Continent.

    What are we doing about it? Do we yell “Take Back Control”? Of course not. We have control – through regional policies, devolution, redistribution of local tax revenues, planning policies, housing market interventions, choices on where to build infrastructure and locate public employment, and mechanisms such as congestion charging and environmental taxation. Sadly, the Right has adopted those (market-distorting) control mechanisms which favour business, finance, and rich London-based oligarchs, instead of those which redress migration imbalances.

    Comparable mechanisms could control “free” movement across EU boundaries, without recourse to bans or quotas. Cameron obsessed about benefits, but as most migrants come to work, we should concentrate on the labour market. We should tax employers to pay for the social costs they generate when they bring in cheap immigrant labour. We should spend that tax on schools and surgeries in high-immigration areas so that neither incomers nor residents suffer. We could make learning English, via job release at the employer’s expense, compulsory. We could incentivise employers to recruit people on JSA instead of migrants. And, if our economy is currently sucking in migrants because of an unstable Osborne boomlet created through a house price bubble, then we should remedy that, before boom is followed by bust.

    We can control immigration, whether or not we leave the EU. Since so many people want us to do that, we should listen.

  • James Hicklin 21st Jul '16 - 4:32pm

    Today the Adam Smith Institute published a Briefing Paper, “The Case For The (Interim) EEA Option” a collaborative work by Sam Bowman and others. This is one version of what happens next so it’s worth a read.

  • The problem is that if May tries to keep her options too open by kicking it into the long grass she will be out of office. Every single analysis seems intent on ignoring the electorate and the ability of the electorate to vote for parties that represent them better. It is absolutely fatal to think people owe you their vote, which is why Leave won in the first place.

  • @ James Hicklin

    Sorry, but the Adam Smith Institute is a right wing think tank which has done much to strip and undermine the social fabric of this country for the private gain of the 1%. It was a group stemming from the Thatcher inner circle.

    You really ought to pay for advertising if you are seeking publicity on a Liberal Democrat site.

  • It’s probably simplistic, but shouldn’t migration be controlled by
    I) setting minimum wage levels as needed
    ii) ensuring the minimum wage levels are adhered to
    The only reason too be employing migrant workers would be if local workers aren’t available, either because wages are too low, or not skilled enough.
    Either of these can be addressed in long term, while in short term the migrant workforce are needed.
    The main failure in the system at present is a combination of allowing wages to be too low & not addressing skill shortages.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Jul '16 - 6:12pm

    Will business really have confidence in civil servants deciding on immigration criteria for business?

  • jedibeeftrix 21st Jul '16 - 6:56pm

    @ james – excellent, who could object to that?

  • James Hicklin 21st Jul '16 - 9:31pm

    @ David Raw
    No, the ASI analysis is based on sound analysis and Classical Liberal principles. You may, of course, disagree with those principles but , if that is the case, in what sense are you (and those who may agree with you) Liberal in any meaningful sense ?
    I’m not saying that you don’t have a coherent view but I do say that, if you disagree with that article, it is difficult to describe your view as “Liberal” in the Adam Smith or J S Mill tradition.

    I may be doing you an injustice here but I get the impression from your tone that you didn’t actually read the article preferring to reject it on principle because it came from the ASI rather than as a result of the content or the quality of the analysis. Certainly you made no attempt to engage with the substance of the arguments.

    I wasn’t “seeking publicity”, I was attempting to contribute to the debate in the same way that, in various posts recently, contributors have quoted Tim Farron and Nick Clegg when they have featured in the national press.

    Those of us who, starting from classical liberal principles, regard the EU as undemocratic and illiberal because of its authoritarian, undemocratic, bureaucratic and centralisising features, regard the leave vote as an opportunity to implement a liberal order in our relations with our European neighbours. You may disagree but at least make an argument rather than resorting to the genetic fallacy.

    @ jedibeeftrix

    If @James is directed to me, thanks for actually engaging with the argument.

    @ everybody
    I think it should be pointed out that Sam Bowman, one of the authors of the article, was Lib Dem Voice of the Year in 2013 – not that that gives any particular authority to his views, of course.

  • James Hicklin.
    Liberalism like most philosophies evolves. Really classical liberalism is a retrospective term for liberalism that predates the social developments of the 19th Century and is often misapplied to libertarianism, which I think is what some people are reacting to. It’s sort of reductionist to insist that Classical Liberalism IS liberalism.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Jul '16 - 10:53pm

    James Hicklin, David Raw, Glenn

    Everybody who is polite enough to respect those on here and mainstream enough to not be extreme in their attitudes , offensive or bullying , I think has a right to advance an opinion n this site , even though it is meant , at least , mainly ,for Liberal Democrat thinking.

    A proponent of the Adam Smith Institute is as welcome as a supporter of the Fabian Society. Perhaps everyone who is related , distantly or recently ,to Liberalism , even in classical form , should be heard , as should socialists who are liberal in their outlook, or social democratic .

    I believe to quote or refer to any body of repute or experience, in these times of economic flux, is welcome , we certainly should make all democrats so.

    Mill , by the way , was to the left of classical Liberal on economics , as am I , and very social Liberal in much of his thinking.Most in this party would not sign up to ASI or those like that.But most would welcome a debate some on here to the farther fringes of the spectrum of left Liberalism , I hope , like their counterparts in the Labour party , would not want to shut down.

  • James Hicklin 21st Jul '16 - 10:56pm

    Thank you for responding in the spirit in which my remarks were intended. I accept your point that “Liberalism” as a political philosophy has evolved, in particular that the Classical Liberalism of the 19th Century is very different from the Social Liberalism of the early 20th Century and subsequently.

    My overarching point is that there is a considered view here to be taken into account at a time of great uncertainty. This is perhaps best summarised in the following extracts from the ASI press release.

    ” Co-author of the report, and Adam Smith Institute fellow, Roland Smith said:

    “The EEA option starts from a very liberal, cooperative agenda that is practical and realistic, and evolves the UK away from the European Union. This first step of staying in the EEA but giving up EU membership will be part of an ongoing evolutionary process to disentangle the UK from the EU – a process that ultimately promises a reinvigoration of Britain as a global player and a re-maturing of Britain’s democracy. And all the while, maintaining the very open trade and free exchange we have with our nearest neighbours and friends.”

    Sam Bowman, Executive Director of the Adam Smith Institute, said:

    “Brexiteers won the referendum but now is the time for everyone to come together to get the best possible Brexit. A bespoke deal probably isn’t possible within a two-year negotiating period, and it is crucial that British firms retain access to the Single Market on the same terms that they currently do – that means keeping down regulatory barriers as well as tariff barriers, since so much of our trade involves services. The EEA Option will make Brexit safe and stable, and keep Scotland on board as the Prime Minister has promised.”

  • James and Lorenzo.
    Thank you for the polite replies.
    I’d like to make it clear that despite my antipathy to the EU, I am a Lib Dem voter and I hope basically a liberal person. I’m just not sold on the idea that the EU is a good organisation and worry that by hitching itself so closely to it, that maybe progressive politics is being damaged.

  • Denis Mollison 22nd Jul '16 - 11:47am

    Glenn – Is your antipathy to the EU’s current policies or to the organisation as such? As a supporter of “progressive politics”, I strongly dislike some of the EU’s current policies, but then the same is true in spades for our current UK government’s policies.
    But I am “sold on the idea that the EU is a good organisation”, and regard our leaving it as a very negative step. And that’s not just because it has done much good, for example in promoting high standards in care of the environment and human rights. It is a unique experiment in introducing democracy to international cooperation, and we should be working to improve it not tearing it apart.

  • I voted Leave. So it’s antipathy to the concept. I don’t really think international Cooperation can be democratised in the way the EU tries because firstly cultures are very different from one country to the next and secondly elections are decided nationally. I think like a lot of essentially utopian vision it forgets there are people and peoples involved. Deep down I suspect it’s really a sort of faux empire trying to manufacture a sense of shared identity that isn’t really there. Also the logic for the EU grew out of the cold war era and made a certain amount of sense as a counter balance to a USSR, but the USSR no longer even exists.

  • @jedibeeftrix: It is so far outside of the EU’s interests to allow City passporting without freedom of movement that the idea is an impossibility.

    The Leave side is acting as if we have a potential royal flush in our hand when in reality we have a Joker and an expired train ticket.

  • Conor McGovern 22nd Jul '16 - 5:27pm

    I think there needs to be a non-discriminatory system for immigration so that people from America, Asia, Africa etc get the same rights of entry as people from Europe. That obviously means ending unlimited EU immigration but it doesn’t mean we can’t have an open, generous policy once everyone’s on a level playing field. We can start negotiating a free, fair trade agreement with the EU, as we can with other countries, so the economy need not suffer long-term outside the EU and we needn’t spend the rest of our days as some rainy, bitter, racist island!

  • The emergency brake that EEA countries have is exactly what it say it is: for use in emergencies. It does not give licence to countries to permanently derogate from the four fundamental freedoms, as Liechtenstein learned two decades ago and Switzerland are learning now.

    Any idea that we can have meaningful controls on immigration and passporting rights for the City is pure fantasy. Any idea that we can have meaningful controls on immigration and the continued existence of a peaceful Northern Ireland in the UK is also pure fantasy. You’d get shorter odds betting a Communist Party majority.

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