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01 October 2023

British ministers show united front to calm eurosceptics

Photo: Reuters


Britain's Brexit, finance and business ministers displayed a united front on Friday with a letter seeking to reassure eurosceptics worried over the country's path out of the European Union.

Publication of the letter late Friday followed a speech by Brexit minister David Davis, in which he admitted there were "different views" within the government over Britain's departure from the bloc.

Davis joined forces with finance minister Philip Hammond and business secretary Greg Clark to assert that Britain will continue to follow EU rules for a "strictly time-limited" transition period after it leaves the bloc.

"During the implementation period, we are clear that the UK's and the EU's access to one another's markets should continue on current terms," the trio wrote.

Pro-Brexit MPs have expressed concern at proposals to continue following European Union rules after Britain leaves in March 2019 in return for market access, while having no policymaking power.

The ministers sought to allay such fears by saying the transition period of around two years was only intended to give people, businesses and public services time to get ready for the full EU exit.

'New allies'

The show of unity presented in the joint letter comes after Prime Minister Theresa May rebuked Hammond for saying Britain would stay closely aligned to the bloc.

On Thursday the finance minister raised eurosceptic hackles in Davos when he expressed hope that the British and EU economies would move only "very modestly, apart".

On Friday, Hammond told Sky News television that Britain needed a "middle way" to protect businesses and jobs - outside the customs union, but refusing to "sever our trade links" with the EU.

Davis conceded in his speech that in politics, there were "different views", adding: "There will be arguments about the tactics but they will change, the options available to us will change throughout the course of the negotiations."

In his speech on Friday, the Brexit minister said Britain would negotiate its own trade deals during the transition period and seek to sign them, even if they could not come into effect until afterwards.

He laid out the ultimate prize at the end: "For the first time in more than 40 years we will be able to step out and sign new trade deals with old friends and new allies around the globe."

Davis conceded that Britain would continue to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) during the transition.

The ministers' joint letter also reaffirmed that as part of the transition EU citizens will continue to be able to move to Britain without restrictions, although a "registration scheme for new arrivals" will be introduced.

Opposition within Westminster

Tensions are rising in the British government as the EU prepares to approve guidelines next week for talks on the terms of the transition period, intended to ease the divorce.

David, Hammond and Clark said they wanted negotiations on the implementation period to be finished by the end of March, which will be followed by discussions on Britain's future trading relations.

But London is yet to set out precisely what it wants and, as a survey of Conservative MPs published this week showed, there appears to be significant differences on crucial elements of the transition.

Almost three-quarters oppose the continuation of freedom of movement during the transition period, according to the survey by the Mile End Institute and The UK in a Changing Europe research units.

Continued ECJ jurisdiction after March 2019 is opposed by 63 percent, the study said.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who spearheads a group of more than 50 Brexit-supporting MPs in May's Conservative Party, warned that staying closely aligned to the EU risked making Brexit a "damage limitation exercise".

"The British people did not vote for that. They did not vote for the management of decline," he said in a speech Thursday, accusing ministers of being "timid".

The high-level disagreements come at a difficult time for May, with several MPs criticising her for a lack of ambition in her domestic programme, and reports suggesting a growing number of Conservative MPs back the idea of a leadership challenge.