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Tuesday 26 September 2023 Dublin: 17°C
Leon Neal/Getty Images
# Brexit
May moots 'associate membership' of EU agencies, concedes neither side can have 'exactly what we want'
The British PM said that she was not cherry-picking but just negotiating in the same way as any trade deal is put together.

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Theresa May has conceded that no side in the Brexit talks can get exactly what it wants.

In a speech given at the Mansion House in London today, she set out to give the UK’s negotiating position following the publication of the EU’s draft withdrawal treaty on Wednesday.

On multiple occasions, she restated there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland – but also made clear that the UK would not allow any breakup of its own common market. There was no explanation for how that would be achieved.

However, she did say concessions would have to be made if the bespoke trade agreement she wants was to be arrived upon.

“I want to be straight with people because the reality is we all need to face up to some hard facts,” she said.

We are leaving the single market, life is going to be different. In certain ways our access to each other’s markets will be different.

On the matter of European Court of Justice jurisdiction, she noted that its existence, and its rulings, will still impact the UK.

On the accusations from the EU that she was attempting to ‘cherry pick’ the most beneficial elements of the Union, she said that was not her approach. However, she added: “If this is cherry picking, then every trade arrangement is cherry picking. What would be cherry picking would be to seek a deal where our rights and obligations were not held in balance.”

She said that there will need to be binding commitments made in any trade agreement, but caveated that idea with the fact that parliament will have its sovereignty and change these at any time.

During her speech, May said that no ‘off the shelf’ deal will work for the UK and the EU, explaining why the Norway, Turkey and Canada models cannot be used.

“We need to strike a new balance. but we will not accept the rights of Canada and the obligations of Norway,” she said.

She said that the border between the UK and the EU should be as “frictionless as possible” and that her government will “explore the terms on which the UK could opt to remain part of EU agencies”, including those regulating chemicals, medicines and aerospace. To do this, she acknowledged that certain fees and obligations would need to be met.

She noted that the UK’s regulations on goods and services would be “at least as high” as those of the EU.

Two options

At the end of her speech, May said that much of what she set out relies on the use of new technologies.

She laid out two customs options that she believes would be acceptable.

  • A customs partnership where the UK would ‘match’ EU rules for goods destined for member states
  • A highly streamed customs arrangement with specific rules for NI – this would include things like exemptions from declarations for small, trusted traders

On the ”deepest and broadest possible” trade agreement that she wants, she said it would require reciprocal commitments to fair competition, the establishment of an arbitration mechanism, ongoing dialogue and the means for regulators to consult each other, an arrangement for data protection and the retention of links between the people.

Concluding, she noted: “So my message to our friends in Europe is clear. We know what we want. We understand your principles. We have a shared interest in getting this right. Now let’s get on with it.”


Two queries – one from a German journalist and one from a French journalist – caused problems for May during the Q&A section after her speech was delivered.

One asked if ‘Brexit will be worth it’. May attempted to laugh it off and said the UK would not be rethinking the outcome of the referendum.

She was then asked to “be honest” on the Northern Ireland question, with the French journalist saying that there will be at least a ‘light border’. May again reiterated her commitment to avoiding this outcome, but again, did not say how this would be achieved.


Initial reaction to the speech – her third keynote on Brexit – was to point out that much of what was proposed was a re-presentation of ideas that were dismissed as fanciful by the EU last August.

The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said she failed to come up with answers.

“The Prime Minister’s commitment to work for a solution on the border is a belated recognition of reality, however that commitment is severely undermined in the same speech when she advocated the very same customs proposals which were widely and comprehensively dismissed last year.”

On the same point, the DUP’s Arlene Foster said, “Last August’s United Kingdom proposals were innovative but did not receive a fair hearing in many quarters. Those proposals can ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after we exit the EU.”

The party welcomed her entire speech, saying it “set forward the basis upon which it would be possible to move forward”.

“The Northern Ireland section of the draft legal text published by the EU, has not only been rejected as unacceptable by the Government but also the Labour Party, thus reinforcing the fact that no United Kingdom Prime Minister could accept such a concept,” he statement continued.

Foster and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill are due to meet EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach said he will study the speech closely.

Leo Varadkar said, “I welcome that she has given a number of important reassurances today, including restating her overall goal of a very close relationship with the EU.”

…For our part, a close economic relationship is very much in the interests of Irish business, as is a smooth transition period. However, I remain concerned that some of the constraints of leaving the customs union and the single market are still not fully recognised.

“We will now need to see more detailed and realistic proposals from the UK. Brexit is due to happen in a little over 12 months, so time is short.”

Explainer: The EU is trying to force the UK to get real, here’s how

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