Theresa May has put Britain on track for a “hard Brexit” by the spring of 2019, as she insisted she will not accept any limits on the UK’s ability to control its own borders.
The Prime Minister’s declaration that the UK will “make our own decisions” on immigration put her on collision course with the Brussels institutions and the 27 remaining member states, ahead of two-year withdrawal talks due to be triggered by the end of March 2017.
European Council President Donald Tusk said other EU states would act to safeguard their own interests, while Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat – who will be president of the Council when Mrs May kicks off talks by invoking Article 50 of the EU treaties – said the single market’s four freedoms of goods, services, capital and people “cannot be decoupled”.
Taking the unusual step for a Tory leader of addressing the annual Conservative conference on its opening day, Mrs May confirmed plans for a Great Repeal Bill to overturn the 1972 Act which took the UK into what was then the European Economic Community.
She said Article 50 would be invoked “soon”, and no later than the end of March next year. And she rejected the argument Britain must choose between “hard Brexit” – in which the nation regains control over immigration but loses full access to the European single market – and “soft Brexit”, under which access to the single market comes with a requirement to allow free movement of EU workers.
To loud applause, Mrs May said: “I know some people ask about the ‘trade-off’ between controlling immigration and trading with Europe. But that is the wrong way of looking at things. We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully independent, sovereign country.
“We will do what independent, sovereign countries do. We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration. And we will be free to pass our own laws.”
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron branded Mrs May’s announcement a “disaster” that would mean “no single market for Britain”.
But Mrs May insisted she would strike a deal allowing “free trade in goods and services” and giving British companies “the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the single market and let European businesses do the same here”.
And Brexit Secretary David Davis said EU leaders should “think carefully” before erecting barriers to trade.
Describing talk of Britain being subjected to trade barriers, such as tariffs, as “bluster”, Mr Davis said: “It certainly won’t be to anyone’s benefit to see an increase in barriers to trade, in either direction.
“So, we want to maintain the freest possible trade between us, without betraying the instruction we have received from the British people to take back control of our own affairs,” he said.