British PM: Hard Brexit not inevitable

A clean break with the EU's single market is not inevitable, British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday, seeking to clarify comments that pushed down the pound on the possibility of a hard Brexit from the European Union.

LONDON • Prime Minister Theresa May has said it was wrong to say a "hard Brexit" was inevitable, after the sterling fell to a 10-week low following comments interpreted as a signal that she would prioritise border controls over European Union market access.

In her first televised interview of the year on Sunday, Mrs May denied that Britain would face a "binary choice" between curbing immigration and having preferential access to the bloc's single market.

But investors viewed the comments as a sign Britain was headed for a hard Brexit, sending the sterling down more than 1 per cent.

Asked at a public meeting yesterday if her comments had been interpreted wrongly, Mrs May said: "I'm tempted to say that the people who are getting it wrong are those who print things saying I'm talking about a hard Brexit, that it is absolutely inevitable there's a hard Brexit."

"I don't accept the terms "hard" and "soft" Brexit. What we're doing is going to get an ambitious, good and best possible deal for the United Kingdom in terms of... trading with and operating within the single European market," she added.

PM May said she had not said anything new in her Sunday interview.

"I'm ambitious for the sort of relationship we can have with the EU when we leave membership of the EU, but we mustn't think of this as sort of leaving the EU and trying to keep bits of membership," she said.

"It's a new relationship, we'll be outside the EU, we will have a new relationship but I believe that can be a relationship which has a good trading deal at its heart."

Earlier, her spokesman said Mrs May was ruling nothing in or out before starting departure talks with the EU.

Mrs 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 labour. The British leader's hope will be that they will still be willing to strike a free trade deal with Britain to safeguard their own economies.

Mrs May is expected to unveil details of her Brexit strategy in the coming weeks.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'British PM: Hard Brexit not inevitable'. Print Edition | Subscribe