Theresa May’s Mansion House speech on Brexit last week amounts to “double cherry-picking” with “no change in substance” from her government’s previous position, according to a confidential European Commission assessment circulated to diplomats from EU countries.
It concludes that although she took a more realistic tone, the prime minister had ultimately confirmed Britain’s red lines and once again “addressed more her domestic audience, trying to bridge the gaps between the two poles of the debate on Brexit in the U.K.”
The teardown of May’s speech is part of a document prepared for the EU27 that also included talking points aimed at explaining the draft withdrawal treaty published last Wednesday by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
The document, seen by POLITICO and first reported by the Guardian, describes May’s address as better than her two previous major speeches on Brexit — at Lancaster House last January and in Florence in September — saying “the tone was positive and measured, and there was an explicit recognition of [some of] the negative impacts of the U.K. leaving the EU.”
But it says that May in the end confirmed the U.K. “red lines” on leaving the EU’s customs union and single market that have made some of Britain’s demands, at least in the EU’s view, contradictory and unachievable.
While Brussels has long warned the U.K. that it will not allow it to cherry-pick advantages of the EU’s single market while shedding obligations of membership in the bloc, the confidential assessment accuses May of demanding “a new model based on double cherry-picking: taking in selective elements of EU member and of third country trade agreements.”
The assessment gives a list of seven positive aspects of the speech, including that May “recognized that trade-offs between sovereignty and market access must be made;” “accepted that leaving the EU has a cost for the U.K.;” and “recognized that leaving the single market means losing the passport for financial services.”
Despite those items of praise, the EU analysis gives May poor marks overall, saying: “The speech did not come up with any concrete suggestion on how to solve the issue of avoiding a hard border in Ireland and Northern Ireland” and “is highly ambiguous on the nature of the future economic partnership, and does not address the question of the unresolved tension in the U.K. position.
“PM May used the language of a free trade agreement several times, listing varying benefits that Canada and South Korea have obtained,” the EU analysis says. “But she also called for a ‘new and better model’ that does not yet exist, referred to Ukraine, and built on that by proposing what amounts to ‘partial membership of the single market.'”
In defending the EU’s draft withdrawal treaty, the analysis notes that the draft did not include any reference to paragraph 50 of the “Joint Report” agreed by the EU and U.K. in December that clinched “sufficient progress” in Phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations. In that paragraph, May effectively promised her political partners in Northern Ireland that she would not agree to any arrangement that treated Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The EU, in its own defense, said that was an internal matter and not something that could be included in the formal withdrawal treaty, which is an accord between the U.K. and EU.
“Paragraph 50 deals with the U.K.-internal process,” according to the assessment. “It gives the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive a say in any further steps which the U.K. may wish to take internally. It is not for the Commission to include these provisions in a text for negotiation between the EU and the U.K.”
The document also rejects May’s main criticism of the EU draft, which she said “No U.K. prime minister could ever accept.”
The protocol outlining the EU backstop position on Northern Ireland “does not undermine the constitutional integrity of the U.K.,” the assessment says.
In rejecting the U.K.’s position on the Northern Irish border, the EU’s assessment lists 15 checks “for the purpose of protecting health and life of humans, animals and plants, public policy and security,” that must be conducted at border inspection points.
Noting that the EU had proposed a special arrangement to avoid a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, the document adds: “Such a selective, and lean version of the internal market is not on offer for the U.K. as a whole.”