Background Briefing: David Davis's Vienna Speech


On Tuesday 20 February, the Brexit Secretary, David Davis delivered a speech in Vienna on Brexit and regulatory standards. He argued that the UK would look to keep high standards in place post-Brexit and that there would not be any kind if race-to-the-bottom or any kind of “Mad Max dystopia”.

The Secretary of State’s speech, fell short in four key areas:

  • We already can improve our standards: Davis argued that post-Brexit, the UK would be able to lead the charge on a “race to the top” on standards. But why would anyone believe him? He hasn’t given a single example of a regulation he would like to improve. And there is nothing within EU rules to prevent countries from raising their own standards they are a floor not a ceiling.
  • There is no appetite for deregulation: The Government’s real agenda is clear: leading Brexiters have long campaigned for a lowering of employment and environmental protections and they see Brexit as the opportunity for a ‘bonfire of red tape’. But a survey out today by the IPPR showed the overwhelming majority of the UK population do not want to diverge from existing EU standards.
  • Lack of detail and proposals: As with recent speeches by Boris Johnson and Theresa May, there was absolutely no in-depth concrete detail about what the Secretary of State actually wanted to achieve. The Brexit Secretary essentially suggested the UK could leave the Single Market and Customs Union but continue to trade with the EU as today. 
  • Still no solutions on Northern Ireland: After speeches from the Foreign Secretary and now the Brexit Secretary we are still none the wiser about what they intend to do about the vital issue of Northern Ireland.


The Government’s real agenda

What David Davis said:

“We will continue our track record of meeting high standards after we leave the European Union. Fears about a race to the bottom are based on nothing, not our history, not our intentions, nor our national interest.”[1]

David Davis, Vienna speech, 20 February 2018



Despite the warms words by David Davis, the reality is that leading Brextremists, including David Davis, have always seen Brexit as an opportunity to lower existing standards.


“Britain would be better off economically if it regained the power to strike its own trade deals and was freed of the crippling burden of red tape, costing many billions a year, imposed by Brussels.”[2]

David Davis 6 March 2016


“To restore Britain’s competitiveness we must begin by deregulating the labour market. Political objections must be overridden. It is too difficult to hire and fire and too expensive to take on new employees. It is intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable while output and employment are clearly cyclical.”[3]

Liam Fox, International Trade Secretary 21 February 2012 


“[Brexit]will be an opportunity for this country to get rid of some of the burdensome regulation that has accreted over the last 44 years.”[4]

Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary, 28 March 2017


“There is little doubt that it is that extra stuff, the stuff from Brussels, that is helping to fur the arteries to the point of sclerosis. The weight of employment regulation is now back-breaking: the collective redundancies directive, the atypical workers directive, the working time directive and a thousand more.”[5]

Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary, 6 June 2014


“If there are regulations which hold any business here back, we now have the potential to amend or even if necessary rescind them.”[6]

Michael Gove, 25 March 2017


“Surely one of the best ways for the EU to speed up growth is to scrap the employment and social affairs directorate in the Commission, repatriate its responsibilities to national governments, then we could scrap the working time directive, the agency workers’ directive, the pregnant workers’ directive, and all of the other barriers to actually employing people if we really want to create jobs in Europe.”[7]

Lord Callanan, Brexit Minister, European Parliament, 2012


Directive that stifles flexibility – for employees and employers – costing our economy £3.6billion each year. Then, scrap the Agency Worker Regulations that will cost jobs and deny workers flexibility. Today, the race to the bottom is not malevolent businesses exploiting workers, but the sclerotic business regulation that cossets those in work, by filling the ranks of the unemployed.”[8]

Dominic Raab, 16 November 2011


“If we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation we could deliver a £4.3bn boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs.”[9]

Priti Patel, Speech at the Institute of Directors, 17 May 2016


The UK-Republic of Ireland land border:

What David Davis said:

Sadly, and once again, following Boris Johnson’s intervention last week and Theresa May’s at the weekend, there was no detail whatsoever about the UK-Ireland land border.  



As has been spelled out by the European Commission’s lead Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, any kind of divergence from existing EU rules and regulations will make a hard border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland inevitable. Moreover, as was agreed to by both the UK and the EU in the December agreement on the withdrawal part of the negotiations, future arrangements must be compatible with avoiding a hard border. In the absence of such an agreement the UK should look to keep full alignment with those internal market and customs unions rules relevant for the preservation of the Good Friday agreement.    

“Once again, ladies and gentlemen, it is important to tell the truth. A UK decision to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union would make border checks unavoidable.”[10]


Michel Barnier, 9 February 2018

“The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom's intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”[11]

UK-EU agreement on the first phase of the negotiations, 8 December 2017