It was certainly not prose worthy of Dante, though some may see similarities between Brexit and his Inferno, but the behind-the-scenes skulduggery that bookended the process would have been meat and drink to the Renaissance schemer.
All such speeches, from David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech in January 2013 in which he pledged an in-out referendum on EU membership, to May’s own Mansion House speech in January when she outlined her 12 negotiating objectives, were also delivered against a backdrop of the internecine warfare over Europe that has dedevilled the ruling Conservative party for decades.
The other common feature, strange given that a key leave demand was to return power to the UK Parliament, is that so few announcements about Europe are made in the House of Commons. This one was to a room full of unelected, unaccountable journalists. May was not the only one to play her hand to the media, as her chief rival and Brexiteer cheerleader, Boris Johnson, took to the pages of the Telegraph newspaper with a 4,000 word article to wreck her speech, with the threat of his resignation if May caved in to the moderates in the Cabinet.
Britain’s entire Brexit — let us not insult the word “strategy” — is still determined largely by a handful of Cabinet ministers, with background music from Tory backbenchers. Conservative MPs who support a leadership challenge are rumored to have crossed the crucial number of 48 needed to trigger a party leadership contest. The party is massively split, and the country suffers as a result of this internal civil war and battle for power.
However, a more positive and cooperative mood swing was the standout feature of May’s speech, something immediately picked by the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who praised “its constructive spirit.” Gone was the aggressive tone of Mansion House as May sounded almost warm-hearted toward Europe: “The success of the EU is profoundly in our national interest and that of the wider world.”
Some of May’s arguments were straight out of the remainer playbook, making the powerful case to be part of Europe after leaving the EU. “Here on our own continent, we see territorial aggression to the east; and from the south, threats from instability and civil war; terrorism, crime and other challenges which respect no borders,” she said. “Our determination to defend the stability, security and prosperity of our European neighbors and friends remains steadfast.”
Yet the speech was anaemic in detail, its guts ripped out by endless clashes with the hard-line Brexiteers, not least Foreign Secretary Johnson. Warm words for Italian citizens in the UK, but few concrete specifics. “We want you to stay; we value you; and we thank you for your contribution to our national life — and it has been, and remains, one of my first goals in this negotiation to ensure that you can carry on living your lives as before.” May said that, from March 2019, the UK would start a registration system for EU citizens living and working in Britain.
The British prime minister’s speech in Florence was supposed to clarify the Brexit process, but instead it has intensified the power struggle in her own party.
The fate of EU citizens in Britain is one of the three key areas that must be resolved before talks can open on a future trading relationship. Nothing was detailed about Northern Ireland. The Brexit divorce is still far from settled, though a transition period when Britain pays its way might go some way to ease the difficulties. Aware that time has been running away from Britain, May’s key proposal was that transition period. “As of today, these considerations point to an implementation period of around two years…”
This means Britain will not fully leave the EU until 2021, not 2019. The status quo would effectively stay in place. May confirmed that current EU rules would apply but did not reveal whether Britain would be bound to any future changes in regulations.
Moreover, for the first time, she agreed to honor Britain’s financial commitments made before Brexit. The hope is that this will unlock further talks that restart this week, but the harsh reality is that time is not Britain’s friend. It is crystal clear that far more time is required to debate, agree and implement key changes, not least to any future immigration system. Two years may not be enough as it is.
It was then an admission of the obvious but it is also an admission that Theresa May is no longer wedded to her mantra of “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Britain is desperate for a positive agreement and European leaders know it. May has had to make her first concessions, and it looks as if more will follow.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech