May’s Fudge in Florence

What a hullabaloo!

Flying all the way to Florence, with a large entourage, pursued by an army of journalists, to give a speech that she could have given in London – or directly to the 27 Presidents and Prime Ministers of the EU countries when she meets them next month – Theresa May’s speech today was more about the show than the content.

If it was aimed at placating our European partners by waxing lyrical, as she did, about sharing the same values and about the benefits of cooperation and partnership, their first reaction will no doubt be to wonder why on earth she wants Britain to walk out of the framework set up to foster those very things.

But when they look at the detail of her speech, they will feel she has revealed nothing particularly new, and is still ambiguous on many of the issues likely to prove difficult for her at the Tory party conference.

Take the issues spun by her entourage as significant:

  • The two year transition period: She simply acknowledged, for the first time in public, that there will need to be a transitional period if we leave. Everyone else has recognised this for some time. She said “around” two years.  But she still can’t bring herself to call it a “transition” period, still referring to it inaccurately as an “implementation” period.
  • The budget: Remaining as contributors (and recipients) within the current seven-year budget which we agreed with our European partners is not seen by the EU27 as a concession, but as a simple acknowledgement of what is reasonable. It does not address the actual contentious issues on the budgetary front, namely what liabilities does Britain have for long-term projects that we entered into as 28 states, for our share of pension costs, or our contribution to whatever EU agencies we may wish to stay in or make use of.
  • The issue of citizens’ rights: Her offer would still mean that EU citizens already living in Britain would enjoy fewer rights than British citizens living in other EU countries, something other EU countries – and the European Parliament which has to ratify any agreement – are unlikely to accept. She still says that British law and British courts alone will protect EU citizens in Britain (though they may “take into account” ECJ rulings), something that won’t reassure Europeans.
  • On Ireland: There were still no ideas put forward about how on earth to have “no physical infrastructure” on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic if the UK indeed leaves the European customs union, which she reaffirmed her intention of doing.
  • On future economic relations: It was all very well to say we will all start with the same (EU) rules and regulations, and acknowledge that problems will only occur when they eventually diverge. But the idea that this is something to be solved through a “dispute resolution mechanism” and an “appropriate mechanism” to interpret what has been agreed, seems to be describing duplicate institutions to what already exists for these purposes in the EU – they simply won’t be branded as “EU”. Whether our European partners will accept such elaborate duplicative machinery to protect British sensitivities remains to be seen.
  • On security: May’s emphasis of the need to work together, to be bold, and have a broad and deep relationship appears to be an endorsement of what the EU does and strives to improve on in this field. Is this an area, (like research, also mentioned) where the UK would like to stay inside the relevant EU agencies and programmes? Or does she, here too, want a fig leaf of duplicative frameworks?

But her speech was also notable for what it failed to address.

We still don’t know for sure which European technical agencies she wants Britain to remain part of, despite many of them being vital for the several economic sectors concerned, from aviation to medicines.

She failed to mention fisheries and what negotiating position she intends to take on the trade off between European access to UK waters and UK exporters’ access to European markets.

She avoided the issue of agriculture and what happens to our farmers if we leave the common European agricultural markets and systems of agricultural support.

There was certainly no acknowledgement that most of the Leave campaign promises cannot be met.

Those in other European capitals who were hoping to hear more about what Britain wants, rather than what it does not want, will have been disappointed.

This is no surprise. The speech was not so much about positioning May better in the negotiations with the EU as about positioning her in the negotiations within the Conservative party.

Her cabinet remains deeply divided between those wanting to prioritise absolute theoretical sovereignty and those seeking to maximise access to the vital EU market. This is not a simple Brexiteer-Remainer division. The Leave campaign itself was divided on this at the time of the referendum, offering two different visions for the future some saying we would stay in the single market, others that we would leave it and “go global”.

Ahead of the Tory party conference, this division has been fudged, not bridged.

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  1. All very true. Main thing that struck me was the strangeness of the event.No host or introductory speech. Nobody invited her or offered a plarform.A unique occasion which just helped illustrate Conservatives isolation.Huge opportunity now to turn the tide.

  2. No-one in EU team will be taken in by this. She has failed to address the three prerequisites for phase 2 of the negotiations. There is no point continuing with them.

  3. As you say, the leave campaign was divided – perhaps about 50/50 – between “single market” and “go it alone”. So the actual referendum result was #Remain 48%, single market 26%, “go it alone” 26%. Therefore #Remain wins.

  4. Florence is the ideal location for her speech, a once great seat of trade, banking and seafaring that went into decline and obscurity due to the infighting of its ruling class. Doesn’t she see the irony? Is she that thick? Or did she want to show Boris as the LIDL Machiavelli that he is?

  5. Hum … Let”s put it simply : most of the issues relating to the “settlement of accounts” before exit do not seem unsolvable.

    The real problems relate to the post Brexit “future relations” between EU27 and UK (as a third country). It is up to EU27 to make a proposal that will be inspired by current EU external agreements.

    There is no need to start negotiating this future agreement before Brexit (ie before March 2019). But the EU can propose the terms of a transitionnal system (2/3 years ?) which will apply as from March 2019 and until the permanent agreement will enter into force.

    EU27 has the final word on these three types of agreements. If the UK refuses any of them, il will be treated as a third country without any special treatment. JGG

  6. This is tosh about the CJEU. Both her and Davis have now made the same comment – why is no-one picking up on the falsity of it ??

    Our domestic courts ALREADY interpret EU law – that is how the system works.
    It is only if the law is unclear that an Article 267 referral is made to the Luxembourg court

  7. She was in Florence last week, was she?
    Practically no mention of this journey on the web.
    What did she say in her speech?
    She said there would be no (hard) border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, did she?
    She said the citizens of the EU would retain their rights in the UK?

  8. ‘The EU never felt to us an integral part of our national story,’ May announces, breezily dismissing the 16 million Britons (including her former self) who felt European enough to vote Remain. Nevertheless – sadly – she is half right.

    The disconnect is understandable. Abroad, the national and EU flags fly together in subliminal unity. Education is key, but how many people have read the Balance of Competences review, compared to fake news about bendy banana regulations? How could past generations know about the EU and its agencies, lacking any basic educational input? Ignorance of the benefits is not proof of their absence, but that is the basis for many a Leave argument.

    The latest poll – 52% for Remain – might suggest the will of the people now is to have a more temperate government that will not risk the nation’s economic health to conduct an ideological experiment that only the richest can survive.

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