European Union rules including on the free movement of people will apply in the UK until 2021, two years after Brexit, Theresa May has said in a bid to reboot stalled talks.
The Prime Minister called for a post-Brexit transition phase of “around two years” and said the UK would “honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership,” signalling that a hefty financial bill to exit the EU and maintain favourable trading access is on offer.
She offered “a bold new strategic agreement” covering security and intelligence cooperation as she told EU governments that Britain would be their “strongest friend and partner” after Brexit.
However, Mrs May said she was not backing down from a threat to leave the EU without an exit deal, and offered no concessions a key Brussels demand that the European Court of Justice should have jurisdiction to protect EU nationals’ rights in the UK.
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The EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed the speech but said UK officials had to explain its “concrete implications”.
In a speech that contained little new detail despite being given a significant build-up, the Prime Minister instead tried to strike a more conciliatory tone in a bid to end a stalemate in negotiations. The Prime Minister restated her aim of reaching an “imaginative and creative” solution for the UK’s relationship with the EU, and ruled out both membership of the European Economic Area and Canada’s new trade deal with the EU as models for Brexit, saying: “We can do so much better than this.”
Mrs May’s insistence on being outside the European Economic Area (EEA) will soothe Brexiteers in her own party, and was welcomed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson after his week-long public spat with the Prime Minister.
Following the speech, he posted on Twitter: “PM speech was positive, optimistic & dynamic – and rightly disposes of the Norway option! Forwards!”
Mr Johnson was in the audience to hear the address, along with Chancellor Philip Hammond and Brexit Secretary David Davis, but no European leaders were present.
Speaking in the Renaissance city of Florence, Mrs May acknowledged that people in the UK and across the continent were worried about the prospect of Brexit, but insisted that she was optimistic about a future in which the UK and EU live alongside one another in a deep and special partnership.
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Mrs May arrived at the Santa Maria Novella church in a Maserati limousine for her speech. “The British people have decided to leave the EU and to be a global trading nation, able to chart our own way in the world,” said the Prime Minister. “For many, this is an exciting time, full of promise. For others it is a worrying one. I look ahead with optimism, believing that if we use this moment to change not just our relationship with Europe but also the way we do things at home.”
Scotland’s Brexit Minister Michael Russell said: “While the Prime Minister’s speech was short on detail, her acceptance of a transition period within the Single Market, with freedom of movement, shows that the UK government has changed its position.
“That is due to the growing consensus of opinion – including leading business voices –that leaving the world’s biggest single market is potentially disastrous for jobs, investment and living standards. But having moved this far, the Prime Minister should now go further and, as we have called for, commit to a long-term future in the Single Market and Customs Union, not just as a transition arrangement.”