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Relationship with EU must be 'unique to UK' and deliver 'positive' trade outcome

Published 31/08/2016

Theresa May has tasked her colleagues with setting out the opportunities that leaving the European Union will create in each of their portfolios
Theresa May has tasked her colleagues with setting out the opportunities that leaving the European Union will create in each of their portfolios

Britain will seek a new arrangement for its post-Brexit relationship with the EU which is tailor-made for the UK, rather than settling for an "off-the-shelf solution" similar to that in place with countries like Norway or Switzerland.

A Cabinet meeting at Prime Minister Theresa May's country residence, Chequers, heard that the Government is seeking a model that is "unique to the United Kingdom" and will deliver migration controls as well as a "positive outcome" on trade.

Mrs May confirmed that she will not open exit negotiations under Article 50 of the EU treaties before the end of this year, and pledged that there would be no second referendum and no attempt to keep Britain in the EU "by the back door".

Cabinet ministers agreed that it is for the UK Government alone to decide when to invoke Article 50 and there is "no need" for MPs to give their approval in a vote, said a spokesman for Mrs May.

"There was a strong emphasis on pushing ahead to Article 50 to lead Britain successfully out of the European Union - with no need for a parliamentary vote," said the spokesman.

"Furthermore, several Cabinet members made it clear that we are leaving the EU but not leaving Europe, with a decisive view that the model we are seeking is one unique to the United Kingdom and not an off-the-shelf solution. This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade goods and services."

There was much debate during the EU referendum campaign over whether the UK should seek a Norway-style relationship with the EU, providing access to the single market through membership of the European Economic Area, or a looser Swiss-style arrangement governed by a series of treaties.

But in a phone call with Norway's PM, Erna Solberg, Mrs May said that upcoming negotiations on the post-Brexit relationship should consider "what is going to work best for the UK and what is going to work for the European Union, rather than necessarily pursuing an existing model".

Ministers had been told to deliver an analysis at the meeting of the opportunities which withdrawal from the European Union presents for their department.

Following the day-long session, Mrs May's official spokeswoman said: "Ministers agreed that we should be seizing the opportunity of Brexit to confirm the UK's place as one of the great trading nations in the world, fostering entrepreneurialism and setting out a long-term vision for the country."

The meeting also restated the Government's commitment to "fiscal discipline and living within our means" and agreed on "the vital need to increase productivity and the importance of doing more to foster economic growth and industrial development in regions up and down the country", said the spokeswoman.

The gathering - dubbed a "Brexit brainstorm" by Labour - came amid continuing uncertainty over the form that Britain's future relationship with the EU will take.

A former Foreign Office minister said that the launch of exit negotiations should be delayed until Mrs May resolves a "fault line" within her Government over whether the UK will accept freedom of movement for EU citizens in return for access to the single market.

Sir Hugo Swire told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "You need to get your ducks in a row before you know what it is you are going to renegotiate. At the moment, I don't think we know that."

And former business minister Anna Soubry - part of the Open Britain group being launched this week by supporters of the failed Remain campaign - said Britain should push for a deal that preserves access to the single market and free movement for EU citizens.

She told Radio 4's Today she would be "concerned about any plans to curb immigration" from Europe, which had "benefited our country, especially business".

But former chancellor and Brexit campaigner Lord Lawson said Article 50 should be tabled as soon as possible and Britain should not "waste time trying to negotiate elaborately" a special trade deal with the EU.

"A long period of uncertainty is bad for the economy, bad for British business, and therefore the sooner this is sorted out the better," Lord Lawson told Today.

Mrs May told Ms Solberg and Finnish PM Juha Sipila that she will not invoke Article 50 before the end of this year, in order to give the UK and EU time to prepare for negotiations and to help ensure the process is "as smooth as possible", said Downing Street.

Opening the Chequers meeting, she said that "quite a lot of work" had been done over the summer on preparing the way for exit talks, adding: " We must continue to be very clear that 'Brexit means Brexit', that we're going to make a success of it. That means there's no second referendum; no attempts to sort of stay in the EU by the back door; that we're actually going to deliver on this."

Labour shadow minister without portfolio Jonathan Ashworth said: "After six years of Tory Government, working people are feeling the pinch, public services are under pressure and the Tories have no plan to deal with the vote to leave Europe.

"Britain needs change but Theresa May and the Tories cannot deliver it. Their austerity agenda has failed working people, they have put the needs of the few over those of the many, and they have plunged Britain into economic uncertainty post-Brexit due to their failure to plan for the outcome. "

In a reflection of the majority votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in the EU, the PM's spokesman said that Cabinet ministers "discussed at length... the commitment to the devolved nations to make sure that Brexit works for all - but Cabinet members were clear that it is the United Kingdom's Government's decision to establish its terms and on when to trigger Article 50".

Pro-Remain Labour MP Chuka Umunna, the chair of Vote Leave Watch, said: "It is now more than two months since the referendum was held, and many years since Vote Leave campaigners started dreaming about Brexit.

"Yet it is clear that the Government has nothing even approaching a plan for how Britain can accomplish the huge task of leaving the EU."

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said: "The country was dragged into this mess by a Tory party acting as a law unto themselves, and now they want to trust us to get them out of it, acting in exactly the same way.

"It is sheer high-handed arrogance for them to say they will take all the decisions themselves, with no consultation of Parliament or the public, with the devolved administrations consulted but not listened to, and with the governments of London and Gibraltar now not even mentioned.

"The Labour Party is clear: Instead of 'pushing ahead' with Article 50, those negotiations should not be triggered until the Government has put forward a clear plan about what it is seeking to achieve, how it will go about it, and until the public, Parliament, the devolved administrations, London and Gibraltar have given their approval to that plan."

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Mrs May had given a "clear undertaking" at their recent meeting to consider Brexit options put forward by the Scottish Government.

"Despite this special cabinet meeting, we are still no closer to knowing what 'Brexit means Brexit' actually means - and as the weeks and months go by that is an increasingly unacceptable and irresponsible position," said Ms Sturgeon.

"The simple fact is that it is the Tories that have put Scotland's interests on the line through a referendum that threatens to take us out of the EU against our will - so the onus is very much on them to show they are serious about engaging positively with a view to safeguarding those interests."

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