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Brexit: Theresa May Lays Out Her Plan For A Sharp Break With The EU

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech on leaving the European Union in London on Tuesday.
Kirsty Wigglesworth
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech on leaving the European Union in London on Tuesday.

Britain's prime minister said Tuesday that the United Kingdom will walk away from the European Union's single market and unified court system, making a sharp break with its largest trading partner.

In a speech delivered about six months after voters passed a referendum requiring Britain to leave the EU, Prime Minister Theresa May laid out a plan for what that split would look like, emphasizing limits on migration into the country.

"We will ensure we can control immigration to Britain from Europe," May said, continuing:

"In the last decade or so, we have seen record levels of net migration in Britain, and that sheer volume has put pressure on public services, like schools, stretched our infrastructure, especially housing, and put a downward pressure on wages for working class people. As home secretary for six years, I know that you cannot control immigration overall when there is free movement to Britain from Europe."

The speech signaled that "controlling borders and limiting immigration are more important that the benefits of free trade with the EU," NPR's Frank Langfitt reported from London.

"That will play well with the 52 percent of voters who backed Brexit last June," he continued. "But economists say, in the long run, it will make the U.K. poorer."

Tim Farron, leader of the opposition Liberal Democrats, told The Guardian that May's plan would do "massive damage" to the economy, and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn told the newspaper that "[May] makes all these optimistic statements, but every economic indicator in Britain is going in the wrong direction."

In arguing for a clean break from the EU, May said that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain" in the complex negotiations necessary to untangle decades of integration with Europe.

She explained that her plan was not based on "partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out. We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave.

"No, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union," she said. "And my job is to get the right deal for Britain as we do."

Exactly what that deal could look like is still unclear. "I do want us to have a customs agreement with the EU" that would govern trade with the European bloc, May said, but she added that when it comes to the details of such an agreement, "I hold no preconceived position. I have an open mind on how we do it. It is not the means that matter, but the ends."

As The Two-Way has reported, the first step toward leaving the EU is for the U.K. to formally notify the European Union of its decision to exit, by invoking a provision known as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and instigating negotiation on the details of the exit that could last up to two years. May previously said she plans to begin the process by March.

But before any plan moves forward, the U.K.'s Parliament must approve it, as we have reported, along with the other 27 EU member nations and the EU Parliament.

"Unless May does a complete U-turn from here, any hope of full single market access for post-EU Britain is more or less out of the question," Kallum Pickering, senior Britain economist at Berenberg Bank in London, told The New York Times.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.

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