Brexit: May signals a partial retreat

Prime Minister’s Florence speech was built around concessions to the EU27

Theresa May’s speech in Florence, her third major set-piece address in Brexit in the past year, was a further step in the British government’s slow journey towards accepting the weakness of its own negotiating position.  Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Theresa May’s speech in Florence, her third major set-piece address in Brexit in the past year, was a further step in the British government’s slow journey towards accepting the weakness of its own negotiating position. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

 

In choosing Florence as the setting for a speech designed to break the deadlock in the Brexit talks, Theresa May was presumably invoking the symbolism of a city that, in its heyday, was an outward-looking trading hub that thrived long before it was absorbed into a unified Italy. But as the British prime minister spoke yesterday, it was another Florentine history – that of endless factionalism, tragic hubris and the loss of economic clout to better-connected rivals – that came to mind.

May’s speech, the third in a trilogy that began with her Conservative Party conference address last October, was a further step in the British government’s slow journey towards accepting the weakness of its own negotiating position. It was most notable for the gap between rhetoric and substance. May’s language, at least in those parts aimed at her domestic audience and party colleagues, sought to project strength, ambition and optimism. She sketched a glorious future for the UK as a global, free-trading state that would summon its “indomitable spirit” in striking out on its own while establishing “a new era of cooperation and partnership” with its European neighbours. “Our fundamentals are strong”, she said, a formulation ingrained in Irish public memory as that of a politician wilfully blind to an impending crash.

Strip away the language, however, and May’s was a speech built around concessions to the EU27. London rejected and then accepted the sequence of the Brexit talks. Just weeks ago British foreign secretary Boris Johnson remarked that the EU could “go whistle” for a financial settlement from the UK; yesterday May confirmed that London would honour all commitments it made as a member of the union. And where once the British side held firm to the line that Brexit would happen definitively in March 2019, May confirmed yesterday that she envisaged seeking a transition period of “around two years”.

May’s aim was to offer just enough to unlock the negotiations, which have been stuck in first gear for months and have yet to begin grappling with the most difficult issues. By signalling space for compromise on the divorce bill, and suggesting that European Court of Justice rulings could be taken into account in British court decisions affecting EU nationals, she may have done enough for now. Worryingly, however, the British positions remains vague and contradictory on other questions. May reaffirmed her wish to avoid any physical infrastructure on the Irish Border, but she also continues to insist the UK will leave the customs union. How these aims are to be reconciled remains a mystery.

May’s speech in itself will not alter the dynamic of the negotiations, but if it keeps the talks from stalling and prepares British public opinion for future concessions, it will have served a useful purpose.

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