What 'Brexit Means Brexit' Means

Theresa May tries to explain.

Markus Schreiber / AP

British Prime Minister Theresa May laid out in the clearest terms yet the government’s vision for a post-Brexit U.K., saying she hopes to have the best deal possible for free trade with the European Union, but one that “will ensure we can control immigration to Britain from Europe.”

Although May’s remarks offered little in terms of policy specifics, they should put to rest any speculation the British government would somehow reverse the results of the Brexit referendum. The message from May was clear: Britons voted last June to leave the EU and the government would deliver on that demand.

May, who said in June that “Brexit means Brexit,” said the U.K. won’t seek access to the European single market; will control immigration from Europe; and seek free-trade deals with the EU and beyond. She also warned the EU against taking punitive actions against the U.K. for leaving the bloc, saying it “would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe.”

Before any of this, though, the U.K. must invoke Article 50 of the EU charter, the step by which it can begin official talks to leave the EU. May is expected to do that in March. Talks with the EU are expected to take two years, during which the two sides will negotiate what the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU will look like. May said any final deal with the EU would be put before Parliament for a vote.

In her remarks, May spoke of Britain’s relationship with Europe and beyond. “We are a European country—and proud of our shared European heritage,” she said. “But we are also a country that has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world.”

She said a strong EU was in the U.K.’s interests, but urged the bloc to heed the lessons from her country’s impending exit. She said the EU “bends toward uniformity, not flexibility,” adding its inflexibility on matters important to the U.K. contributed to the Leave vote.

“Britain is not the only member state where there is a strong attachment to accountable and democratic government, such a strong internationalist mindset, or a belief that diversity within Europe should be celebrated,” she said. “And so I believe there is a lesson in Brexit not just for Britain but, if it wants to succeed, for the EU itself.”

Brexit, May said, would mean an end to the jurisdiction over the U.K. of the European Court of Justice, which rules on disputes between member states and ensures European law is interpreted the same way across the bloc; allow the government tocontrol immigration to Britain from Europe,” and a stop annual contributions to the EU budget. But, she added, the U.K. would seek to ensure “the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in other member states, as early as we can.”

May said the U.K. was “leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.” But she was also clear about her country’s future relationship with the bloc: The U.K. did not want “partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out. … No, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. And my job is to get the right deal for Britain as we do.”

Supporters of Britain’s continued membership in the EU—and indeed even some politicians who supported leaving—have floated arrangements such as those enjoyed by Norway, which is not an EU member, but gets some of the same benefits as member states. May said the U.K. would pursue a new free-trade agreement with the bloc, but will not seek access to the European single market. That issue of has perhaps been the single-biggest obstacle to a smooth Brexit even before the process has been set in motion. The EU says it won’t consider single-market access for the U.K. unless it accepts the “four freedoms”—goods, capital, services, and people. And because the UK wants to limit the number of migrants coming to its territory, single-market membership appears to be a nonstarter—even though Brexit proponents such as Boris Johnson, now the UK foreign minister, had said the UK would remain a member of the single market.

May said any agreement with the EU “should allow for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states. It should give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets—and let European businesses do the same in Britain.” Judging by what May appears to be asking for—access to the single market in all but name—that might prove a contentious point during negotiations.

The U.K., May added, would also pursue free-trade deals with other nations. She noted that contrary to President Obama, who warned that the U.K. would move to the “back of the queue” on a trade deal with the U.S. if it voted to leave the EU, President-elect Trump noted Britain is not “at the back of the queue … but front of the line.”

May also warned European officials against trying to punish the U.K. for leaving the EU, saying any such move “would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe.” She said “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal,” because it would still allow the country to trade with Europe and strike trade deals across the world. But for the EU, she said, among other things it “would mean a loss of access for European firms to the financial services of the City of London.”