In January this year, Theresa May stood up in Lancaster House outlining her twelve negotiating priorities for Brexit talks, emphasising the need for a “new partnership” and finding a deal that worked for both sides.
May did not shy away from tough rhetoric, threatening to walk away if she didn’t get the deal she wanted, and introducing “competitive tax rates” to attract the world’s biggest investors to the UK. At the time, May didn’t outline the issues or sectors that would be a priority for the UK, saying simply that the outcome of the negotiations would leave Britain with a “brighter future”.
The ‘brighter future’, should it materialise, is still some way off, and the government will need to navigate some choppy waters in the meantime. Political developments since the Lancaster House speech have provided a stronger picture on what we can expect as the Prime Minister formally begins the UK’s departure from the EU.
Immigration will be high on the agenda from the outset. The Leave campaign ran on the mantra of ‘taking back control’, and Theresa May has long held the belief that migration needs to be reduced to the ‘tens of thousands’, claiming this will build a “fairer Britain”.
Despite this, leading Brexiteers appear to have softened their position on the issue. Most notably, Brexit Secretary David Davis recently admitted that in order to build a “sustainable” immigration system, numbers of migrants could rise following the UK’s departure from the EU. While it is unlikely the UK government will agree to any measures comparable with the EU’s principle of freedom of movement, some relaxation of their position on this would help negotiations get off to a good start.
Defending the Union
May’s emphasis on a stronger union will be critical now that Brexit talks have formally begun. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum in Scotland has raised fears that prolonged political uncertainty could have a catastrophic impact on the UK economy, while weakening the UK’s negotiating position in Brussels. Similarly, the political stand-off in Northern Ireland creates further headaches for the Prime Minister.
She needs these issues to be resolved early on if she wishes to defend the integrity of the United Kingdom and achieve her goal of protecting the Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland.
She will also not want to be distracted by issues at home given the complexity of Brexit talks, while avoiding accusations from Brexiteers that she’s not up to the job at hand.
The Divorce Bill
Agreeing terms of the Brexit bill will be a key priority early on, feeding into May’s intentions for a “smooth, orderly Brexit”. European leaders have repeatedly emphasised that talks cannot progress until arrangements on the UK’s ‘divorce bill’ – the amount owed by Whitehall to the EU under its current treaty commitments – are agreed upon.
Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s lead negotiator, expects the bill to be between €40bn and €60bn, while research from the Centre of European Reform estimates it could be as high as €70bn.
Resolving this issue is unlikely to be straightforward, but it will be in both sides’ interests to avoid any major delays in getting down to business, allowing maximum time for the negotiations proper to take place.
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