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.