BIRMINGHAM: Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain would start the formal process for leaving the EU before April as her governing Conservative Party opened its annual conference on Sunday.
Though many Conservatives headed to the congress in Birmingham, central England still jubilant about Britain’s June referendum vote to leave the European Union, the centre-right government has come under increasing pressure to define what shape Brexit will take.
Before Sunday, May had only repeatedly insisted that Britain would not invoke Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty — starting a maximum two-year departure process — before January.
“I’ve been saying that we wouldn’t trigger before the end of this year so that we get some preparation in place,” she told BBC television. “We will trigger before the end of March next year.”
May said she hoped the announcement would lead to a “smoother process of negotiation” with Brussels.
However, European powers keen to dampen euroscepticism in their own backyards have been taking an increasingly hard line, warning that Britain cannot expect special treatment on trade and immigration.
Access to the European single market means allowing free movement of people, they say. But May says she wants to curb the yearly influx of hundreds of thousands of people from other parts of the EU.
She said the referendum was a clear message that Britain should have control over the movement of people coming from the bloc. “We will deliver on that,” she said.
Britain will be “able to decide who can come into, and set the rules for who can come into, the country. “We will look at the various ways that we can bring in the control that the British people want.”
‘Hard Brexit’ calls
Some key Conservatives have said they want to sever all ties with the EU by leaving the single market and imposing work visa rules.
They argue that the European Union would only be harming itself if it began imposing tariffs on British goods and services because the EU exports more to Britain than Britain does to the rest of the bloc.
However, May herself backed staying in the EU, while other key ministers such as finance minister Philip Hammond reportedly want a softer landing, with carve-outs for Europe’s most important financial centre, the City of London.
“There is so little known about Brexit,” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics. “It begs the question of whether the government does have a view about exactly what it’s going to do with the country or not.”
May started addressing the concerns by announcing Sunday a Great Repeal Bill, ending the authority of EU law once Britain leaves the union.
It will overturn laws that make EU regulations supreme, enshrine all EU rules in domestic law and confirm the British parliament can amend them as it wants.
“This marks the first stage in the UK becoming a sovereign and independent country once again,” May told The Sunday Times newspaper. “It will return power and authority to the elected institutions of our country. It means that the authority of EU law in Britain will end.”
No election before 2020
On the face of it, May — whose keynote closing speech comes on Wednesday — goes to the convention in a strong position.
Opinion polls put the Conservatives well ahead of the deeply divided main opposition Labour Party under their veteran leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn.
But she has ruled out holding a general election before one is due in 2020, telling The Sunday Times it would “introduce a note of instability”.
And when Article 50 is triggered, it is likely to be a painful process. This could worsen the decades-old arguments between eurosceptic and more pro-EU Conservatives, already inflamed by the referendum.
“The Brexit negotiations will take much longer and be far more complicated than many British politicians realise,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform.
Sunday is set to be the main day for debate on the EU, with addresses from May as well as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit minister David Davis.
They will be expected “to put some kind of meat on the bones,” said Victoria Honeyman, politics lecturer at Leeds University.