Britain will be forceful advocate for free trade, says PM May

British Prime Minister Theresa May said she believed strongly in a rules-based global order, in a speech at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, yesterday.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said she believed strongly in a rules-based global order, in a speech at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS

DAVOS • British Prime Minister Theresa May is pitching post-Brexit Britain as a champion of globalisation and free trade, saying she wants to defend the "rules-based international system".

"The UK will step up to a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world," she said in a speech at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, yesterday.

Mrs May's address was an attempt to reassure her audience that despite having taken office on the back of the wave of populism that swept Britain and the US last year, she is a voice of "centre- ground, mainstream politics" and someone they can work with. It was met with muted applause.

She was speaking in a week dominated by the fallout from last year's electoral upsets.

On Monday, Europe awoke to newspaper interviews with US President-elect Donald Trump in which he cast doubt on the European Union, Nato and free trade while, on Tuesday, Mrs May set out her strategy for leaving the 28- nation bloc.

In her WEF speech, the Prime Minister sought to suggest that she will be a force for stability, supporting global bodies that Mr Trump has attacked.

"I believe strongly in a rules- based global order," Mrs May said. "The establishment of the institutions that give effect to it in the mid-20th century was a crucial foundation for much of the growing peace and prosperity the world has enjoyed since. And the tragic history of the first half of the last century reminds us of the cost of those institutions' absence."

Her tone was strikingly different from the speech she made at her Conservative Party conference last October, when she attacked those who see themselves as "citizens of the world". She praised Britain's racial diversity and insisted that the country is outward-facing.

Following her speech, London Mayor Sadiq Khan warned EU leaders that their countries will lose out to rival financial hubs in New York and Asia if the British capital is not allowed privileged access to the bloc's single market after Brexit.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television's Francine Lacqua at the WEF yesterday, he said: "If London was to become inward-looking and we fail to secure privileged access to the single market, if we fail to attract talent, businesses would inevitably leave London."

Mr Khan said: "My message to European leaders is they wouldn't just leave London and go to Madrid, Paris, Frankfurt or Berlin; they will go to Hong Kong, Singapore or elsewhere, so it is a lose-lose, a lose for London and the UK and a lose for Europe too."

He called on business leaders to press Mrs May on the dangers of a "hard Brexit", and said the Prime Minister's presence is positive for London as she will be told of their anxieties directly, rather than through ministers and other intermediaries.

"The important thing is the Prime Minister is here today," Mr Khan said. "That is fantastic - the Prime Minister can listen to job creators, wealth creators, banks, the financial sector, those in the tech sector, political leaders, and understand their concerns."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2017, with the headline 'Britain will be forceful advocate for free trade, says PM May'. Print Edition | Subscribe