Prime Minister Theresa May said she’s not wedded to any particular model for the nature of the U.K.’s trading relationship with the European Union once it’s completed a withdrawal from the bloc.
“I’m looking at this with an open mind,” May said Wednesday at a news conference in Rome after talks with her Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi. “We should be developing the model that suits the United Kingdom and the European Union, not adopting necessarily a model that’s on the shelf already.”
May’s remarks suggest her new government, in power for just under two weeks, has yet to home in on a set of precise requirements for Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the bloc’s other 27 members. May, making the third trip to an EU capital since she took over from David Cameron, also said she “intends to be able to” guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the U.K. after withdrawal.
May’s task is to deliver the exit from the union and consequent reduction in immigration that British voters demanded while limiting the cost to an economy that’s already showing signs of damage from last month’s referendum result. The pound plunged to its lowest in more than three decades against the dollar following the vote, and recent surveys suggest it delivered an immediate blow to business and consumer sentiment. Growth data published on Wednesday showed the U.K. economy had a stronger-than-expected performance in the second quarter, which mostly fell before the referendum.
The extent of the drag on the U.K. economy of Brexit will depend on the precise relationship enjoyed by Britain after withdrawal, with U.K. media speculating May wants to broker an agreement somewhere between those of Norway and Canada.
Norway is a member of the European Economic Area, giving it access to the single market. It has no say over the rules and must contribute to its budget, while accepting free labor movement. Canada negotiated a free-trade agreement that has yet to be ratified, but will limit most trade tariffs between it and the EU. It doesn’t require free labor flows, and services are also not included in the pact.
“It will take time to work out the nature of our relationship, and that’s why we should take to time to prepare for these negotiations so that both sides can identify their objectives and opportunities,” May said. “Yesterday I chaired the first meeting of the cabinet committee on exiting the European Union to prepare and plan for an orderly departure.”
The U.K. premier has indicated she’d like to preserve as much free trade as possible, as well as so-called passporting for the country’s financial-services industry, while being able to restrict the free movement of EU citizens to the U.K.
“We had a very clear message from the British people in the Brexit vote that they want us to bring in some controls on free movement,” May said. “We will deliver on that.”
As to people who have already taken advantage of the EU’s free-movement rules, May said: “I want to be able to guarantee their rights in the U.K., I expect to be able to do that, I intend to be able to do that, to guarantee their rights.
“The only circumstances in which that would not be possible would be if the rights of British citizens living in other EU member states were not guaranteed,” May said. “But I hope that this is an issue that we can address early on.”
Renzi said there are about 600,000 Italians living in the U.K. and many are concerned about their future.
“I am worried they might eventually decide to make my life more complicated to work here as an EU citizen,” Silvia Schiavinato, 32, who’s been living in London for six years and works as a marketing assistant, said in an interview. “I am also wondering if I really want to keep living in a country where I don’t feel welcome or wanted any more.”
May has indicated she won’t start the formal withdrawal process before the end of this year and is first embarking on a series of visits to meet her counterparts in other member states to help her gauge what’s possible. She’s already held talks with her counterparts from Germany, France and Ireland.
“This requires a lot of good will, a clear timeline and clarity of the path ahead,” Renzi said. “For this reason we are particularly interested in giving our greatest help to make the path ahead as efficient as possible.”