Expert View

May’s Florence speech likely to fail in both its goals

by John Wyles | 24.09.2017

Theresa May had two objectives with her Florence speech: to break the stalemate in negotiations with the EU and paper over differences in Tory party. Early reaction suggests she has achieved neither.

The prime minister is trying to improve her pretty forlorn chances of winning a judgment from next month’s European Council that “sufficient progress” has been made to allow the negotiations to widen from divorce terms to the future shape of Britain’s relations with the EU.

Hence, the signal that the Treasury’s purse strings will be sufficiently loosened to make payments of about £18 billion over two years to ensure that none of the 27 other member states suffers any financial loss after Brexit.  

Months ago this ioffer might have harvested some good will on the mainland. Similarly, the broader assurances on protections for EU citizens in the UK. Now, they will be seen as a panicky realisation that without progress towards a deal the ill-prepared plunge over the cliff edge could be a reality in just 18 months.

The immediate reaction of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, was that more clarity was needed on EU citizens’ rights, the exit bill and the Irish border question before talks could be held on trade. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, asked for more “concrete” proposals. Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s point person on Brexit, said May’s idea of forcing EU citizens to register during the transition was “out of the question”.

The prime minister’s second aim is to pilot her seriously maimed political career safely through the turbulent waters of next week’s Tory Party conference. Hence the delicate but potentially doomed attempt to balance the demands of the hard Brexiters (a brief transition after Brexit with no EU regulation and no observance of the European Court of Justice) against an apparent Cabinet majority favouring a long transition period that would effectively prolong British membership for at least two years or more after March 2019. Boris Johnson versus Chancellor Philip Hammond, shall we say.

The truce May brokered at last week’s two-and-a-half hour Cabinet meeting had already broken by this morning. The headline in the Mail on Sunday’s splash was: “Chancellor vs Boris: It’s all out war”. The paper said the two ministers were feuding over the length of the transition, which the prime minister had left vague at “around” two years. The Sunday Telegraph’s splash read: “Boris sets red lines on Brexit.” The foreign secretary was said to be opposed to the idea of the UK following any “new” EU rules during the transition.

Jacob Rees Mogg, amazingly a rising star in the Tory firmament, has said that if May’s proposal means paying big money to Brussels and bending the knee to the ECJ, which it does, then his red line has been crossed.

The warring factions in the Tory Party could eventually paralyse the government. Then the initiative will swing to the Remainers. Can these be sufficiently united to rally behind a “stop Brexit” movement? The Tories cannot put country before party. Others must try to do so.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “May’s Florence speech likely to fail in both its goals”

  • In France, every citizen and or resident is required to register at the local town hall indicating their plans to live in that area. Thus, in theory at least, the government knows where everybody is. That would include migrant workers from another EU country as well as French nationals moving to the area for seasonal work (such as at a ski resort). This is normal and does not interfere with freedom in any way. I don’t suppose criminals comply, but pretty much everybody else does. Why could this not be done in the UK?

    I agree with Neil McCart, above.