Richard Corbett: May’s Florentine fudge simply highlighted Tory divisions

Ever since Guy Verhofstadt let slip that the monthly Brexit negotiating round was to be put back a week so that Theresa May could make an important proclamation, speculation about the content of her speech has been rife.

But, 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 – May’s speech today was more about the show than the content.

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.

Boris Johnson’s 4,200 word attention-seeking intervention last weekend once again reminded us that for many Tories, arguments about Europe are more about positioning backstage in the ongoing drama of their party, than with seriously addressing Britain’s place on the global stage.

May’s 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”.

May waxed lyrical about about sharing the same values with Europe and about the benefits of co-operation and partnership with Europe. The first reaction in many European capitals 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.

May talked of ambition, creativity and innovation and of new relationships but offered little in the way of practical proposals. Look at the detail of her speech, it is apparent that she has revealed nothing particularly new, and is still ambiguous on  the issues likely to prove difficult for her at the Tory party conference.

  1. The budget: Remaining as contributors (and recipients) within the current seven-year budget of 2014-2020 – 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.
  2. The issue of citizens’ rights: May’s 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 after the recent Home Office expulsion letters, hastily retracted while the negotiations go on.
  3. 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 Britain indeed leaves the European customs union, which May reaffirmed her intention of doing, turning it into a customs border.
  4. 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.
  5. On future economic relations and the single market: 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 duplicate machinery to protect British sensitivities remains to be seen.
  6. 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 Britain would like to stay inside the relevant EU agencies and programmes? Or does she, here too, want a fig leaf of duplicate frameworks?

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 many economic sectors, 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 British waters and British fish 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.

Ahead of the Tory party conference, their key divisions have been fudged, not bridged.

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