The Brexit script

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May’s speech indicates some positives for India

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit speech, while being keenly anticipated, was not expected to spring surprises. Still the pressure was clearly on the Prime Minister on many counts: not only was she expected to offer greater clarity that the public, markets and businesses sought about the shape and direction of Brexit, but the speech also needed to satisfy the staunch Eurosceptics within her own party. As someone who had backed the ‘Remain’ camp in the run up to the referendum, the pressure has remained on May to show off her “Brexit” credentials.

As anticipated, while shying away from the labels of “soft” and “hard” Brexit, May signaled that her government would indeed be pushing for a clean Brexit. “What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market,” she told those gathered. “That Agreement may take in elements of current Single Market arrangements in certain areas — on the export of cars and lorries for example, or the freedom to provide financial services across national borders — as it makes no sense to start again from scratch when Britain and the remaining Member States have adhered to the same rules for so many years.”

She also gave the clearest signal yet that the government intended to leave the customs union, although potentially remaining a “signatory to elements of it”.

She was conciliatory at points - “We are leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe,” she said, though the speech ended on a distinctly defiant tone, as May warned of the “calamitous self harm” that the EU would do itself should it listen to the “voices calling for a punitive deal that punishes Britain.” “If we were excluded from accessing the Single Market — we would be free to change the basis of Britain’s economic model,” she said, a likely reference to comments fellow members of her government had made about lowering tax rates in a bid to attract more international business in the wake of Brexit.

In one of the most significant concessions so far made she said that Parliament would now get a vote on the final deal before it was implemented; though it’s notable that she declined when questioned further by journalists to confirm whether this would be a binding vote that could potentially block the deal.

The speech is significant to India and the 800 odd Indian companies with European headquarters in London. While this week the new Indian High Commissioner to London said he saw Brexit as more of an “opportunity,” Indian companies have traditionally viewed Britain as their main gateway to Europe, and in anticipation of a potential hard Brexit had begun to obtain the necessary licenses to operate in the region.

May’s emphasis on immigration controls, though focused on EU citizens during the speech, was significant, signalling that the toughening of overall immigration policy is unlikely to end any time soon.

May said that while Britain hoped to continue to attract the “brightest and best to work or study in Britain” the process had to be managed properly “so that our immigration system serves the national interest.”

On a positive note for India, May highlighted Britain’s eagerness to forge relations with nations beyond the EU, pointing to India, New Zealand and Australia as countries on which discussions on future trade ties had commenced. However, the speech’s real test will be its reception by governments in the EU and across the world.

Published on January 17, 2017
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