British Prime Minister Theresa May announced in a Jan. 17 speech that her government will seek to sign a "comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement" with the European Union that will include as many goods and services as possible. According to May, such a deal would permit the United Kingdom to continue trading with the bloc while granting London complete control over its immigration policy and restoring the full sovereignty of Parliament. At the same time, leaving Europe's internal market would enable the United Kingdom to sign free trade agreements with the rest of the world, an option that is not available to members of the European Union or its customs union.
The purpose of May's speech was to provide clarity about her government's plans for upcoming Brexit negotiations with Brussels, which will start by late March. She began by announcing that the British Parliament will convert the body of existing EU law into British law to ensure that the Continental bloc's rules continue to apply in the United Kingdom after it leaves the union. British lawmakers will then decide over time which parts of legislation to preserve. Acknowledging the depth and scope of the approaching dialogue with Brussels, May admitted that London would be interested in pursuing "a phased process of implementation" of any agreements the two sides reach so that businesses have time to adapt to the new legal order. May also said her administration wants to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who currently live in the United Kingdom, as well as those of British citizens who reside elsewhere in the European Union. She added that the United Kingdom will continue to try to attract the best and brightest to work or study within its borders.
A large portion of May's speech was dedicated to discussing the United Kingdom's domestic circumstances. For example, she announced the creation of a Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations that will give officials from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales a way to contribute to the Brexit talks, and she confirmed that any final deal will be put to a vote in Parliament. May also promised to work with the European Union to find "a practical solution" that will keep the border open between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland once the Brexit is complete. Though May pointed out that "nobody wants to return to the borders of the past," she did not clarify how her government intends to resolve the issue.
Finally, May declared that London will seek out new trade agreements with the rest of the world, including the United States, China, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and India. She then ended her speech by saying that though the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, it is not leaving Europe, and it will continue to cooperate with the bloc on issues related to crime, terrorism and foreign affairs. May warned other EU states that any attempt to punish the United Kingdom for exiting the bloc would be an act of "calamitous self-harm."
Nearly seven months after the Brexit referendum, May has provided a glimpse into London's plans to address some of the most important problems surrounding its negotiations with the European Union, including the future of the country's membership in Europe's internal market. Nevertheless, she left several pressing questions unanswered. As of now it is unclear what the "passporting rights" of firms in the British financial sector, the Republic of Ireland's border situation, the legal status of British citizens living in the bloc, or the scope and depth of London's free trade agreement with Brussels will ultimately look like. Part of this ambiguity stems from the fact that most of these decisions will not be made by May's government, but by the course of its tough negotiations with Europe's leaders.