LONDON — In a major speech on Britain’s exit from the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday warned her people that they must accept some trade-offs to achieve the independence their government seeks, even as she asked the Europeans to, please, seek compromise on the issues of trade, tariffs and borders she said are essential.
During her 45-minute speech, May set out her proposals for a future relationship between the United Kingdom and the E.U.
The prime minister, weakened at home and under pressure abroad, said that Britain sought the “broadest and deepest possible agreement, covering more sectors and cooperating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today.”
But she said “hard facts” need to be faced.
“I want to be straight with people,” said May, who hoped to address criticisms that the British government’s Brexit position so far has been at best vague and at worst implausible.
“We are leaving the single market,” she said. “Life is going to be different; in certain ways our access to each other’s markets will be less than it is now.”
That rhetoric contrasted with recent comments by top members of her own government, such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who held forth on the glories to come of a “Global Britain,” free to make trade deals with China and the United States, and free from the shackles of the bureaucrats in Brussels.
May’s long-awaited remarks, called “Our Future Partnership,” represented her third big speech on Brexit since the 2016 vote in which a narrow majority of Britons opted to leave the E.U. and were billed as a pivotal moment.
Across the English Channel, E.U. leaders were listening closely, hoping for concrete solutions to issues such as the Northern Ireland border and how to achieve the “as frictionless as possible” trade that May has demanded.
“After what I have heard today I am even more concerned,” tweeted Manfred Weber, a German lawmaker and close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s. “I don't see how we could reach an agreement on #Brexit if the UK government continues to bury its head in the sand like this.”
But Michel Barnier, the E.U.’s chief Brexit negotiator, said he welcomed the speech. “Clarity about #UK leaving Single Market and Customs Union & recognition of trade-offs will inform #EUCO guidelines re: future FTA,” he tweeted.
May, who has ruled out staying in the single market or a customs union, talked about a need for reciprocal “binding commitments” and an independent arbitration system. She also said that certain British sectors — such as the pharmaceutical, aviation and chemical industries — may seek to remain a part of existing E.U. agencies, meaning they would abide by their rules and make financial contributions.
She said that the government was committed to no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but that a deal was possible that would also leave Britain open to striking its own international trade deals. She didn’t outline specifics on what such an arrangement would look like.
May also outlined what she said were “five tests” that will guide her government’s approach in the negotiations: taking back control of Britain’s borders, laws and money; an enduring solution; the protection of jobs and security; Britain remaining an “outward-looking, tolerant, European democracy”; and a strengthening of our “union of nations.”
Mujtaba Rahman, a Eurasia Group analyst, said that although May’s speech “feels superficially more realistic, it does not really address the EU’s core concerns.” In a briefing note, he said that May offered no new ideas on how to solve the Irish border problem and noted that her “pick and mix” approach has been “constantly ruled out by the EU27.”
“May was preparing the ground for medicine that both factions in the Conservative Party’s heated debate on Europe will find difficult to swallow,” he wrote.
May tried to head off the criticism that she is trying to enjoy the benefits of being in the single market and customs union without the obligations, saying that “every free trade agreement has varying market access depending on the respective interests of the countries involved. If this is cherry-picking, then every trade arrangement is cherry-picking.”
The speech comes at the end of a rough week for May. She saw pro-business lobby groups applaud the opposition Labour Party’s call for the U.K. to stay in a customs union. She tussled with E.U. officials over their proposal that would effectively see Northern Ireland remain part of the customs union. And she faced interventions from two former British prime ministers.
John Major, the Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997, said lawmakers should have a free vote on the final deal and the option of a new referendum. If Brexit flops, he said, “there will be the most terrible backlash.”
His successor, the Labour prime minister Tony Blair, said May’s Brexit plan is “literally not going to happen” and lambasted those who dismiss the Northern Ireland border issue as insignificant.
“I find it not just disappointing but sickening that people should really be prepared to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland on the altar of Brexit,” said Blair, who played a crucial role in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that helped end decades of violence.
May delivered her speech at Mansion House, an 18th-century building in the center of London’s financial district, in front of an audience that included E.U. ambassadors and journalists. The venue was hastily relocated from the northeastern city of Newcastle, as Britain struggles to cope with its heaviest snowfall in decades.
When asked by a German journalist if Brexit was “worth it,” May responded, “If that was an attempt to say, will we think again on Brexit, the answer is no, we won’t think again on Brexit.”
But she added: “Unlike some politicians, I have actually been straight with people because there are choices to be made. There are some hard facts to be faced.”
Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.