European leaders give May’s Brexit speech cautious welcome

Varadkar urges more clarity on two-year transition plan

Speaking in Florence Theresa May called for Britain’s relationship with the European Union to remain almost unchanged until at least 2021. Video: Reuters


European leaders have given a cautious welcome to Theresa May’s call for Britain’s relationship with the European Union to remain almost unchanged until at least 2021, two years after Brexit. Speaking in Florence, the prime minister said Britain would operate within EU rules during such a transition period, including with regard to the free movement of people, in return for full access to the single market.

Britain would also pay into the EU budget for an extra two years and Ms May promised to “honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership”. The prime minister also suggested that British courts could take rulings from the European Court of Justice into account in future when adjudicating the rights of EU citizens in Britain.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the British prime minister had shown a constructive spirit and a willingness to move forward in the negotiations.

“Prime minister May’s statements are a step forward but they must now be translated into a precise negotiating position of the UK government,” he said.

Ms May restated Britain’s commitment, shared with Ireland and the EU, to maintain the Common Travel Area, protect the gains of the Belfast Agreement and avoid the return of any physical infrastructure to the Border. But she offered no specific suggestion about how a hard Border can be avoided if Britain leaves the EU customs union and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called for more clarity.

‘Genuine effort’

“I think it is a genuine effort by the prime minister to move things along and make progress”, he said adding that he was, “particularly happy that once again she referenced issues that are of real importance to Ireland such as the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process, making sure there is no physical infrastructure on the Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

“But we will of course need further clarity and further understanding as to how a transition period might work. Requesting a transition period is also a step in the right direction,” Mr Varadkar said.

French president Emmanuel Macron has warned Mrs May greater clarity is needed over Britain’s negotiating position if she wants to break the deadlock in the stalled Brexit talks. Speaking in Paris, Mr Macron said that while he welcomed Mrs May’s “willingness” to move forward, more progress was needed on the rights of EU citizens in Britain and the border with Ireland as well as the so-called “divorce settlement”. “Before we move forward, we wish to clarify the issue of the regulation of European citizens, the financial terms of the exit and the question of Ireland,” he said. “If those three points are not clarified, then we cannot move forward on the rest.”

The prime minister’s speech followed a week of political drama in Britain after foreign secretary Boris Johnson appeared to challenge her authority with a 4200-word essay calling for a more abrupt approach to Brexit. With her cabinet split over the final shape of Brexit, Ms May on Friday rejected both the European Economic Area option, similar to Norway, and a free trade agreement similar to the one Canada has with the EU.

The speech won praise from both wings of the Conservative Party, with Mr Johnson describing it as “uplifting” and the pro-European former chancellor Ken Clarke saying he was reassured by the prime minister’s words.

“The whole thing had an altogether more grown-up tone about it and I was very reassured by it – there’s a lot of detail to be filled in but it’s the beginning, I think, of having proper negotiations with the EU,” Mr Clarke said.

Final destination

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the speech showed that the government had adopted his party’s policy of a status quo Brexit but he added that, 15 months after the referendum, the final destination was no clearer.

“The only advance seems to be that the prime minister has listened to Labour and faced up to the reality that Britain needs a transition on the same basic terms to provide stability for businesses and workers. That’s because Theresa May and her Conservative cabinet colleagues are spending more time negotiating with each other rather than with the EU,” he said.

Additional reporting Reuters