LONDON - Prime Minister Theresa May told the British people Friday that they have to face "hard facts" about Brexit, warning that the U.K. will have less access to European Union markets once it leaves the bloc.
But May also said a mutually beneficial future relationship is possible, and she urged EU leaders to work with her to deliver a "bold and comprehensive economic partnership."
In a speech aimed at answering critics who have accused the U.K. government of failing to grasp the tough realities of Brexit, May said Britain wanted "the broadest and deepest possible agreement — covering more sectors and co-operating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today."
The U.K. is due to leave the 28-nation EU on March 29, 2019, but the two sides have yet to negotiate new arrangements for trade, security, aviation and a host of other fields. A deal needs to be struck by the fall so European parliaments can sign off on it before Brexit day.
EU leaders have warned that May's insistence on leaving the EU's single market and customs union makes the continued close ties she is seeking impossible. They accuse Britain of wanting to cherry-pick benefits of EU membership without any of the responsibilities.
In a speech aimed both at the EU and at a U.K. that remains divided over whether Brexit is a good idea, May said "we all need to face up to some hard facts."
"In certain ways, our access to each other's markets will be less than it is now," she said.
But May signalled that Britain is willing to make major compromises to secure an ambitious free trade deal.
She said "U.K .and EU regulatory standards will remain substantially similar in the future" to ensure there is no need for tariffs and other obstacles for the free movement of goods.
And May said "bold and creative thinking" could lead to solutions for trade in services and other areas.
"We don't want to discriminate against EU service providers in the U.K. And we wouldn't want the EU to discriminate against U.K. service providers," she said.
May also said Britain wants to remain a member of some EU agencies, including those governing medicines, chemicals and aviation — and is willing to pay and to play by the agencies' rules.
"If this is cherry-picking, then every trade relationship is cherry-picking," she said, noting that all trade deals are unique.
Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said he welcomed the speech, tweeting that "clarity about U.K. leaving single market and customs union and recognition of trade-offs" would inform EU guidelines on a future trade deal.
British business groups also largely approved. Miles Celic of financial services lobby group TheCityUK described it as "ambitious and pragmatic."
Stephen Martin, head of the Institute of Directors, said "business leaders will welcome the prime minister's honest admission that negotiating the future U.K.-EU relationship will involve making difficult choices."
The speech to journalists and diplomats at London's grand Mansion House was the most detailed account yet from the British government of what it is willing to give and what it wants to take in the ongoing divorce negotiations.
But it left many questions unanswered, including what will happen to the Ireland-Northern Ireland border, which will be the only adjoining land frontier between the U.K. and an EU member country.
Britain and the bloc have promised there will be no customs posts or other impediments along the 310-mile (500 kilometre) border. But May has rejected the EU's proposal for how to achieve that — essentially by keeping Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., inside the EU customs union.
On Friday, May proposed instead a "customs partnership" in which the U.K. mirrors EU requirements on goods from around the world, or a streamlined customs arrangement using technology and co-operation to eliminate the need for customs checks.
May, who leads a Conservative Party that is deeply divided over Brexit, said that as negotiations reached a "crucial moment," she would ignore extreme voices on both sides of the argument.
"My message to our friends in Europe is clear," she said. "We know what we want. We understand your principles. We have a shared interest in getting this right. Let's get on with it."