LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May will promise Britain bright prospects outside the European Union on Thursday when she tours a country still deeply divided about its future as the countdown to Brexit starts its last 12 months.
Britain will leave the European Union at 2300 GMT on March 29, 2019, severing ties that helped define its national identity, its laws, and its international stature over 46 years of integration with European neighbours.
The world’s sixth largest economy caused a major global shock in 2016 by narrowly voting to withdraw from the EU after a fevered referendum campaign that sharpened regional divisions, pitted young against old, and exposed a deep distrust between voters and the political establishment.
In the 21 months since the referendum vote, May, who became prime minister in the resulting political chaos, has struggled to unite the country behind a single vision of Brexit.
Polls show voters’ disparate views on leaving are entrenched, and few have any certainty about Britain’s long term future.
On Thursday, May will meet voters in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — a whirlwind tour designed as a rallying cry for the union between the four nations, and to paint a positive post-Brexit vision.
“I am determined that our future will be a bright one,” she said ahead of the roughly 800-mile (1,280 km) trip ending in London.
“It’s a future in which we trade freely with friends and partners across Europe and beyond. Having regained control of our laws, our borders and our money, and seized the opportunities provided by Brexit, the UK will thrive as a strong and united country that works for everyone, no matter whether you voted Leave or Remain.”
May, 61, has 12 months to plot a successful course through difficult political and economic terrain.
Brexiteers fret that the EU divorce is taking too long and could be reversed. Pro-EU campaigners still push for a less radical exit or a second referendum.
At home, May only has a small majority in parliament and must find a way to corral her Conservative Party, which is still split over the best Brexit plan, into backing legislation that will prepare Britain for life outside the bloc.
That task has so far swamped her government and its administrative machine, leading to accusations she has taken the eye off the ball on domestic policy and given the socialist-led Labour Party a chance to build support ahead of a 2022 election.
In Brussels, May’s ministers have won little in the way of concessions from the EU negotiating team, setting a difficult tone for upcoming talks on long-term trading ties - particularly when it comes to the future of Britain’s economic engine: its financial services sector.
But, a transitional deal that effectively keeps Britain inside the EU single market until the end of 2020, agreed in principle last week with Brussels, has calmed anxious businesses and bought May time to work out the details of post-Brexit policy.
Among those challenges will be holding together the United Kingdom, made up of four nations which were split at the referendum: Wales and England voted to leave the EU, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.
Scotland and Wales are drawing up contingency plans to protect their own interests in case they can not reach agreement with May on how powers regained from Brussels are redistributed.
Northern Ireland is into a second year of a political crisis that has left it without a devolved administration, and the future management of its land border with EU-member Ireland is one of the thorniest issues outstanding in talks with Brussels.
Against that backdrop, May’s tour on Thursday will focus on meeting a cross-section of voters to reassure them that she is working to tear down the barriers thrown up by the referendum, and that whether they voted ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’, they will be better off after Brexit.
“I am determined that as we leave the EU, and in the years ahead, we will strengthen the bonds that unite us, because ours is the world’s most successful union,” she said.
Reporting by William James; Editing by Richard Balmforth