U.K.’s Johnson Woos Trump After May Signals Clean Break With EU

  • May says Brexit isn’t about keeping ‘bits’ of EU membership
  • Pound weakens as premier’s comments indicate hard Brexit

U.K.'s May Hints at Single Market Exit in Brexit

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will meet with key congressional leaders in Washington on Monday as the U.K. seeks to strengthen ties with Donald Trump’s incoming administration a day after Prime Minister Theresa May signaled Britain may quit the European Union single market.

The pound fell to a 10-week low after May said in a Sky News television interview on Sunday that leaving the EU will be about “getting the right relationship, not about keeping bits of membership,” suggesting Britain may opt for a so-called hard Brexit. She signaled control of immigration and lawmaking are her priorities in the deal.

“She said you can’t retain bits of it and the single market is a component part of the European Union, and it’s been a bad deal for the United Kingdom in the last 12 years,” Richard Tice, co-chairman of Leave Means Leave, a group which is campaigning for a clean break with the EU, said on Monday in a BBC Radio interview. “The sooner we leave it, the better and the sooner we can do our own trade deals with countries around the world, and it’s really good to hear that Boris Johnson is in America, then the better.”

Johnson’s U.S. visit, which saw him become the first British cabinet minister to hold face-to-face talks with the president-elect’s team on Sunday, shows the U.K.’s shifting priorities as May seeks to trigger formal divorce talks by the end of March. She’s said she wants to strengthen trade ties with other parts of the world after Brexit and has sought to build a relationship with Trump after a frosty start.

Johnson met with Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and the president-elect’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The talks were “positive and frank” and covered relations with Syria, Russia and China, the BBC reported, citing unidentified aides. On Monday, he’ll meet with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and a trio of senators -- Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Ben Cardin of Maryland.

‘Benefit of Both’

“The special relationship we have with the United States is an important relationship in terms of security and stability around the world,” May said in her Sky interview. “The conversations I’ve had, I think we’re going to look to build on that relationship for the benefit of both the United States and the U.K. and I think that’s something that’s optimistic and positive for the U.K. for the future.”

May used the interview to deny her government’s plan to exit the bloc is “muddled,” saying she’ll unveil details of her strategy in the coming weeks. In doing so, she defended herself against an allegation by Ivan Rogers, Britain’s envoy to the EU who quit last week, that the government lacks an effective strategy for leaving the bloc.

“We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer, so the question is what is the right relationship for the U.K. to have with the European Union when we are outside,” she said. “We will be able to have control of our borders, control of our laws, but we still want the best possible deal for U.K. companies to be able to trade in and within the EU and European companies to operate and trade in the U.K.”

European Court

The comments suggest that with time running out before her own March 31 deadline to file for divorce, May is willing to gamble Britain’s trading relationship with its biggest market in return for greater sovereignty. Being part of the single market requires the U.K. to allow free movement of labor and to accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

With the premier’s remarks signaling a hard Brexit is more likely, the pound on Monday fell to its lowest against the dollar since the end of October, dropping by 0.9 percent to $1.2181 at 9:02 a.m. in London.

“You don’t go into a negotiation giving up something which is as important as the single market: it would be absolutely mad to do that,” Roland Rudd, chairman of the Open Britain group that seeks to moderate Brexit, said on Monday in a BBC Radio interview. “You don’t give up this jewel in the crown that served Britain so well for so long.”

May’s EU counterparts have repeatedly warned that she will not be allowed to “cherry pick” and that membership of the tariff-free single market requires her maintaining free movement of goods, services, capital and labor. May’s hope will be that they will still be willing to strike a free-trade deal with the U.K. to safeguard their own economies.

— With assistance by Tim Ross

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