DAVOS, Switzerland - British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to convince business leaders Thursday that the country remains committed to free trade and globalization despite last year’s vote to leave the European Union.
Just two days after indicating that Britain would be leaving the European single market as well as the EU, May told an audience at the World Economic Forum at the Swiss ski resort of Davos that the Brexit vote was not a rejection of “our friends in Europe,” or an attempt to cease cooperation.
Conceding that Britain “must face up to a period of momentous change” and that the road ahead will be “uncertain at times,” May said it was a vote to “take control and make decisions for ourselves” and to become “even more global and internationalist in action and spirit, too.”
As well as seeking to pursue “a bold and ambitious” free trade agreement with the EU, May said Britain is looking to strike trade deals with “old friends” and “new allies.”
Already, she said tentative discussions have begun with Australia, India and New Zealand and that China, Brazil, and the Persian Gulf states have expressed their interest in striking trade deals.
“It is about embracing genuine free trade, because that is the basis of our prosperity but also the best way to cement the multilateral partnerships and cooperation that help to build a better world,” she said.
“I want the U.K. to emerge from this period of change as a truly global Britain - the best friend and neighbor to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe, too.”
She said governments have to also take account of those left behind by globalization, saying “mainstream political and business leaders have failed to comprehend their legitimate concerns for too long.”
She urged businesses to play by the same rules as everyone else, especially on paying taxes. Otherwise, she said, political parties of the far left and far right will keep exploiting this discontent.
“If we are to make the case for free markets, free trade and globalization, as we must, those of us who believe in them must face up to and respond to the concerns people have,” May said.
May’s speech comes two days after she outlined her strategy for the Brexit discussions with the EU that will start after she formally triggers the two-year exit discussions. That is expected by the end of March.
Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said May had “faced up to reality” during her speech on Tuesday, which confirmed widespread speculation that May was looking for a so-called “hard Brexit” that sees the country outside the EU’s single market.
But Rutte said May’s decision to prioritize immigration will mean British economic growth will be “impacted negatively by the fact that they will leave the biggest market in the world so they are willing to pay the price.”
So far, the British economy has held up relatively well since the Brexit vote, growing faster than many of its peers largely thanks to a sharp fall in the value of the pound, which helps exporters.
However, the currency’s decline is already causing a spike in inflation, which will increasingly hurt British consumers and businesses. And the uncertainty over what Brexit will eventually mean is keeping some companies from investing.
There are particular worries in the financial sector that Britain’s exit from the EU and its single market will prompt banks to relocate jobs to cities like Paris, Frankfurt or Dublin. Some, like HSBC, have confirmed existing plans to move jobs out of London.
Jacques Attali, a former adviser to French President Francois Mitterrand and ex-head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, said Brexit will benefit France as “we’ll have no one inside or outside who will want to participate in discussions which do not involve them.”
As part of that, Attali said France can “try to attract some people from the City (of London).”
Simon Collins, U.K. Chairman of accounting and consulting firm KPMG, said May had sent a “signal of intent to build on Britain’s heritage as a strong multi-cultural trading nation and establish the country as the global leader of free trade.”
He added that her speech was likely to “go some way to assuage the nerves of CEOs,” who are worried about a rise in global protectionism.
Reporting for CBS News from Davos, Switzerland: Lulu Chiang, Lauren Hoenemeyer and Gilad Thaler