Year to Brexit: May aims to unite Britain with four-nation tour



British Prime Minister Theresa May embarked on a tour of all four UK nations on Thursday to mark one year until Brexit – and attempt to paint a positive vision of the country’s future.

If Britain remains together, May argued in a statement released overnight, it will have a positive future outside the European Union, which it is scheduled to leave on March 29, 2019.

Brexit so far - and key dates ahead. Graphic from CGTN

“I am determined that our future will be a bright one,” May said. “It’s a future in which we trade freely with friends and partners across Europe and beyond.”

Will Brexit mean Brexit?

In fact, if all goes to plan, the transition agreement struck with the EU earlier in March means little will change immediately after Britain leaves in a year’s time. But to get to that point, May must overcome many challenges over the next 12 months.

A newspaper stand shows an advert for the Evening Standard‍, leading with British Prime Minister Theresa May's triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on March 29, 2017.

Progress has been made in negotiations with the EU after a slow start, with a provisional transition agreement struck that will allow Britain to retain access to the single market and customs union until the end of 2020.

Background Information

Customs union: The customs union creates common tariffs on all imports from outside the EU, and no tariffs on the movement of those goods between EU member states. Turkey is a member of the customs union, but not the EU.

Single market: The EU is a single territory for the purposes of the “four freedoms” – movement of trade, services, people and capital – with no internal borders or regulatory obstacles. The single market eliminates tariffs and reduces costs by applying the same rules across all 28 member states. Some countries – such as Norway – are in the single market, but not the EU.

That deal – which is contingent on a withdrawal treaty being successfully agreed – would avoid a “cliff-edge” departure and allow Britain to begin official negotiations over trade deals with countries such as China and the United States.

The transition deal effectively means the major Brexit changes have been put back until January 1, 2021.

The United Kingdom?

May’s four-nation tour aims to highlight a united Britain post-Brexit, amid continued uncertainty over the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as well as speculation that Scotland may hold a second independence referendum.

Majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU in 2016, while England and Wales opted to leave.

“I am determined that as we leave the EU, and in the years ahead, we will strengthen the bonds that unite us, because ours is the world’s most successful union,” the prime minister said on Wednesday evening.

May stressed her commitment to devolution – which gives Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland control over some aspects of domestic policy – and promised to increase those powers.

“As we leave the EU, powers will return from Brussels to the parliaments and assemblies of the UK, closer to the people we all serve and with greater ability to deliver for their needs. Each of the devolved nations will see an increase in their decision-making powers.”

Britain remains deeply split on Brexit, however, with frequent protests and a group of influencers still hoping to stop it.

The referendum on June 23, 2016 exposed divisions between ages, education, political parties and regions that seem only to have become more entrenched since the vote.

Tensions were further inflamed this week amid the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, with the allegation that the official campaign to leave the bloc may have broken electoral spending rules.

Obstacles ahead

Several avenues remain to block or disrupt Britain’s exit, including a series of parliamentary votes on legislation related to both Britain’s withdrawal and its future trade relationship with the EU, as well as the post-Brexit immigration system.

A clear split within May’s Conservatives means passing legislation in the UK parliament is far from guaranteed, especially after the party lost its majority in the snap 2017 general election.

A hardline pro-Brexit group led by MP Jacob Rees-Mogg has been particularly vocal in pressing for a major break from the EU, while moderates are expected to use the parliamentary process to dilute the impact of exit.

The Conservatives do not have a majority in the upper House of Lords either, and legislation is expected to be amended there repeatedly – including attempts, for example, to guarantee a second referendum or ensure Britain stays in the customs union.

May has ruled out a second vote and is committed to taking Britain out of the customs union, but if parliament votes against her wishes a constitutional crisis could follow.

A parliamentary vote on the final deal is expected in October – if it were rejected, Britain could drop out of the EU with no deal agreed – though further negotiations and a delayed departure would be more likely. Even if it is accepted, parliament can attempt to amend it. It’s impossible to know if the EU would accept changes.

And it’s not only British parliamentarians who must approve the final deal – a majority in the 750-strong European Parliament is also required.

Many other challenges lie ahead before October. Local elections in May are expected to see major losses in London for the governing Conservatives, which are likely to embolden opponents to Brexit.

And not only has a resolution not been found to the Irish border question, but little progress has been made on the future EU-UK trading relationship.

'Strong and united'

With a multitude of questions and obstacles in the year ahead, May will on Thursday focus on a positive post-Brexit vision.

"Having regained control of our laws, our borders and our money, and seized the opportunities provided by Brexit, the UK will thrive as a strong and united country that works for everyone, no matter whether you voted Leave or Remain."

The prime minister begins her tour in Scotland, before traveling to Newcastle in northern England. She will then head to Belfast in Northern Ireland and Barry in Wales, before finishing the day in London.