Prime Minister Theresa May’s Speech to the World Economic Forum
19 January 2017
Thank you, Professor Schwab, for that introduction, and thank you for inviting me to speak here at the World Economic Forum this morning.
This is an organisation that is, as it says in the very first line of your mission statement, committed to ‘improving the state of the world’. Those of us who meet here are all – by instinct and outlook – optimists who believe in the power of public and private co-operation to make the world of tomorrow better than the world of today. And we are all united in our belief that that world will be built on the foundations of free trade, partnership and globalisation.
Yet beyond the confines of this hall, those forces for good that we so often take for granted are being called into question.
The forces of liberalism, free trade and globalisation that have had – and continue to have – such an overwhelmingly positive impact on our world, that have harnessed unprecedented levels of wealth and opportunity, that have lifted millions out of poverty around the world, that have brought nations closer together, broken down barriers and improved standards of living and consumer choice, forces that underpin the rules-based international system that is key to our global prosperity and security, are somehow at risk of being undermined.
And as we meet here this morning, across Europe, parties of the Far Left and the Far Right are seeking to exploit this opportunity, gathering support by feeding off an underlying and keenly felt sense among some people – often those on modest to low incomes living in relatively rich countries around the west – that these forces are not working for them.
And those parties – who embrace the politics of division and despair; who offer easy answers; who claim to understand people’s problems and always know what and who to blame – feed off something else too: the sense among the public that mainstream political and business leaders have failed to comprehend their legitimate concerns for too long.
This morning, I want to set out a manifesto for change that responds to these concerns and shows that the politics of the mainstream can deliver the change people need.
I want to show how, by taking a new approach that harnesses the good of what works and changes what does not, we can maintain – indeed we can build – support for the rules-based international system.
And I want to explain how, as we do so, the United Kingdom – a country that has so often been at the forefront of economic and social change – 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.
For that is the unique opportunity that Britain now has.
I speak to you this morning as the Prime Minister of a country that faces the future with confidence.
For a little over 6 months ago, millions of my fellow citizens upset the odds by voting, with determination and quiet resolve, to leave the European Union and embrace the world.
Let us not underestimate the magnitude of that decision. It means Britain must face up to a period of momentous change. It means we must go through a tough negotiation and forge a new role for ourselves in the world. It means accepting that the road ahead will be uncertain at times, but believing that it leads towards a brighter future for our country’s children, and grandchildren, too.
So while it would have been easy for the British people to shy away from taking such a path, they fixed their eyes on that brighter future and chose a bold, ambitious course instead.
They chose to build a truly Global Britain.
I know that this, and the other reasons Britain took such a decision, is not always well understood internationally, particularly among our friends and allies in Europe. Some of our European partners feel that we have turned our back on them. And I know many fear what our decision means for the future of the EU itself.
But as I said in my speech earlier this week, our decision to leave the European Union was no rejection of our friends in Europe, with whom we share common interests and values and so much else. It was no attempt to become more distant from them, or to cease the cooperation that has helped to keep our continent secure and strong.
And nor was it an attempt to undermine the European Union itself. It remains overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU as an organisation should succeed.
It was simply a vote to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy and national self-determination. A vote to take control and make decisions for ourselves.
And, crucially, to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit, too.
Because that is who we are as a nation. Britain’s history and culture is profoundly internationalist.
We are a European country, and proud of our shared European heritage, but we are also a country that has always looked beyond Europe into the wider world.
That is why we are among the most racially diverse countries in Europe, one of the most multicultural members of the European Union, and why – whether we are talking about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, countries in Africa, Asia or those that are closer to home in Europe – so many of us have close friends and relatives from across the world.
And it is why we are by instinct a great, global, trading nation that seeks to trade with countries not just in Europe but beyond Europe, too.
So at the heart of the plan I set out earlier this week is a determination to pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement between the UK and the European Union. But, more than that, we seek the freedom to strike new trade deals with old friends and new allies right around the world as well.