Speech: We have voted to leave the EU, but not Europe: article by Theresa May


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I am delighted to welcome Prime Minister Cazeneuve to Downing Street today at such an important moment in both the profound friendship between our countries and the wider relationship between Britain and the whole European Union. Mr Cazeneuve and I worked very closely together as interior ministers, tackling the shared security challenges our countries face and I look forward to continuing that close cooperation.

Last summer, the British people voted to leave the EU, but they did not vote to leave Europe or in any way to step back from the world. It was not a vote to become any more distant from our friends and allies in Europe but to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit.

So the referendum was not a rejection of the values we share. Neither does it represent a desire to harm the European Union itself. It remains overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed and we will continue to be reliable partners with France and all our European allies. Britain and France aren’t just allies: we are neighbours and friends, now and into the future.

That is why we seek a new partnership with Europe based on our shared interests and on continued co-operation in areas such as defence, security and trade.

We want to carry on trading with Europe in the most ambitious way possible, for that is in the UK’s interests and in France’s interests too. The UK is France’s 5th largest export market with our bilateral trade last year alone worth in excess of 50 billion euros. UK companies are responsible for an estimated 230,000 jobs in France, and French companies for about 370,000 jobs in the UK.

We want that trade and that partnership to grow, not diminish. So as we leave the EU we will seek the greatest possible access to the European single market through a new, comprehensive, bold, ambitious free trade agreement. This cannot, however, mean retaining membership of the single market. President Hollande and other European leaders have been very clear that this would mean accepting the ‘four freedoms’ of goods, capital, services and people and I respect their position. Britain understands that EU leaders want to continue with the process of integration. We do not, to borrow the phrase, seek to cherry-pick which bits of membership we desire.

There is, however, no reason why we cannot agree an ambitious new free trade agreement between Britain and the European Union. Through this and other free trade agreements we will forge with partners around the world, I am determined that Britain will continue to be a great champion of free trade – and that can only be good for British and French business.

At the same time as we remain open for business, so the United Kingdom will remain an open and tolerant country too. French people will always be welcome in Britain, just as I hope you will continue to welcome the 12 million visits by Brits to France each year. I also want to guarantee the rights of all EU citizens, including what the French government estimate to be over 300,000 French people who are already living in Britain, and I hope France will do the same for the Brits who have made their lives there. At the recent Informal European Council, the general view was that we should reach an agreement which applied equally to all member states, so I will make securing this reciprocal agreement a priority as soon as the negotiations begin, because this is in everyone’s interests.

A global Britain will also be a leading partner in addressing the wider global challenges that we face together. As France heads towards its presidential election, I know there is a debate about how the benefits of prosperity can be shared by more people. We are having a similar debate in Britain, where we have embarked on an ambitious programme of economic and social reform to spread wealth and opportunity more fairly across our country. I hope that we can continue to work together with our international partners to shape a global economy that truly works for everyone, including through our shared commitment to tackling climate change, and making sure our scientists are able to continue to work together on the research that helps to shape our future.

That same co-operation is vital for our security too. For generations, British and French service men and women have fought side by side – here in Europe and further afield – in the defence of the freedoms that we treasure. Last year we marked the centenary of the Somme, this year together we will commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the battle of Passchendaele. As we do so, we will think also of the British and French forces of today, fighting side by side as their forefathers did including against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. And our forces work more and more closely together – in the skies above Iraq and Syria we have a British pilot flying a French Rafale and a French pilot flying a British Voyager. While French forces will deploy with their British counterparts to Estonia in the Spring as part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence.

In the aftermath of horrific terrorist attacks against your country in the last 2 years, I want you to know that Britain will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with you as a staunch ally and a great friend.

So in addition to our unprecedented round the clock co-operation on intelligence and counter-terrorism to protect our peoples, we will continue to strengthen the wider Strategic Defence Partnership between our countries under the Lancaster House Treaty. Britain will bring much to the table, not least through meeting our NATO obligation to spend 2% of our GDP on defence. Together Britain and France account for almost half of all European defence spending and three-quarters of defence-related research and development, including a 2 billion euro project to develop the most advanced combat air system anywhere in Europe.

Britain will also stand alongside France at the forefront of wider international efforts on Syria and Ukraine. Just this week our 2 countries are pushing ahead with a joint resolution on Syrian chemical weapons at the United Nations, and when Prime Minister Cazeneuve joins me later today, I am sure that we will again resolve to maintain pressure on Russia in response to its aggressive and destabilising actions in Eastern Ukraine and the drastic deterioration in the humanitarian situation that we have seen recently.

In this period of change for my nation, Britain may be leaving the European Union as an organisation, but we will be stronger than ever as a dependable partner for our friends in France and across Europe, working to enhance the security and prosperity of all our citizens. As I said in my first speech as Prime Minister in the British Parliament: we share a firm belief in the values of liberté, égalité and fraternité. And together with France, a global Britain will always defend them.

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