It has been a few days since Theresa May’s speech in Florence attempted to break the deadlock of EU talks which have faltered before a fourth round of negotiations begins today. The response, much like the speech itself, has been varied, but it seems May has fallen short of the expectations of all sides.
Has the UK finally put the ball back in the EU’s court? Or was the Prime Minister’s Italy trip just an exercise in kicking an expensive can down the road?
Signs of progress?
Supporters of Theresa May will view her key statements as evidence of success, at least in opening up some talking points with EU negotiators. The Prime Minister led by reversing her threat that EU security could suffer from the UK’s departure, assuring that “our determination to defend the stability, security and prosperity of our European neighbours and friends remains steadfast”.
She continued with a similarly conciliatory tone, accepting that Britain “will honour commitments made during our membership” (a contentious issue among “hard-Brexit” Conservatives) although refusing to give a figure. Most significantly, she addressed the rights of EU citizens, particularly important after a series of Home Office blunders appeared to add weight to claims she was holding citizens as ‘bargaining chips’. May offered to write legal assurances for EU citizens directly into UK law, preventing MPs from altering their rights as many had feared.
However, the news was dominated by her main concession – that Britain would likely require a ‘transition period’ of around two years after leaving the EU in order for “people and businesses…to adjust in a smooth and orderly way”. She stressed that this would be limited, but accepted that Britain would be governed by EU law during the phase, on the condition that EU citizens visiting the UK be controlled by an immigration ‘registration system’.
May’s softer tone seemed initially to have the desired effect, with Michel Barnier, European Commission Brexit negotiator, praising her “constructive spirit” and “willingness to move forward”. However, he was quick to point out that the EU’s positions on many issues would not be ignored, and that continued access to EU benefits would require continued financial and other obligations.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, was rather less assuaging, reminding the Prime Minister that the European Parliament will ‘put EU citizens first’ and calling new EU visitor registration mechanisms “out of the question”. Both noted that the suggestions put forward by May were far from concrete, and would have to be considered in this week’s official talks.
No concrete answers
If Theresa May’s key points were vague, the issues she neglected to consider were equally unhelpful. Barnier and Verhofstadt noted that the problem of an Irish border remains, with May only repeating that she would “not accept any physical infrastructure at the border”, already stated in a much-derided, contradictory Brexit position paper.
The Prime Minister dismissed both the ‘Norway option’ (paying for European Economic Area access but with no control over EU legislation) and ‘Canada option’ (a free trade agreement with fewer obligations, but fewer advantages), but officials again warned that Boris Johnson’s cherry-picking ‘have our cake and eat it’ approach would never be approved by the EU. Other problems, such as an exact ‘divorce bill’ figure, cooperation on research and Britain’s potential inability to process EU citizens, are also no closer to being resolved. Devolved parliaments in particular will continue to question her assertion that leaving the EU will deliver sovereignty.
While EU figures and citizens have been mainly critical, May’s own MPs have also taken the opportunity to question her words, including those manoeuvring for pole position in any leadership race. Having been smartly marginalised by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson claimed that he had swayed key aspects of the speech, including her rejection of the ‘Norway model’. Potential leader Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised the possibility of continued free movement and May’s “guaranteeing of money”, despite almost all commentators agreeing that Britain will continue paying its dues until it leaves the Union.
It seems that May’s Italian intervention has thus largely been a failure in sparking genuine progress with negotiations, at best succeeding in temporarily avoiding any tough decisions. Neither has it placated her detractors, something which she surely must have suspected before she touched down in Florence. Likewise, the symbolism of the city – labelled the ‘birthplace of the Renaissance’ – was not lost on her, with her introduction drawing parallels with its links to Europe as an idea and culture rather than an accident of geography.
However, no EU representatives were present in Florence, and given the relative unimportance of her actual words, questions have been asked of her decision to address Europe from the city. The Prime Minister is well-known for minimising personal jeopardy with a cautious approach – with leaving the EU looking increasingly unmanageable and any speech certain to prove divisive, was she seeking to at least subtly mitigate inevitable criticism through her actions instead?