22 September 2017

Theresa May in Florence: right speech, wrong time


Theresa May has just delivered the speech that both Britain and Europe needed to hear. The problem is that they needed to hear it a year ago.

In her remarks in Florence, Mrs May did two important things. The first is that she praised the Europeans to high heavens. The woman who accused Brussels of attempting to sabotage her election campaign – something she turned out to be perfectly capable of doing on her own – was suddenly talking about what binds us together, about how Britain will be Europe’s best and closest friend, even praising Jean-Claude Juncker’s federalist blueprint for a Britain-free EU. The stark white backdrop she spoke in front of repeated the message: “Shared History. Shared Challenges. Shared Future.”

This, in other words, was the love-bombing that Tim Montgomerie called for – begged for – on CapX. The question is whether a year of bruising words and bruised feelings will be so easily forgotten in the wake of Mrs May’s newfound emollience.

The next thing Mrs May did was to set out in more detail how Britain will get from here to there. After weeks of speculation about a change of tack, Mrs May confirmed that the objectives she set out in her admirable Lancaster House speech remain intact: out of the Single Market and customs union, no ECJ supervision, no vast payments. What has changed is not the destination, but the journey we take to get there: a two-year “implementation period” during which pretty much everything remains the same, including our payments to the EU coffers. The same hard Brexit, but with a softer landing.

All of this is entirely sensible. Britain has been in the EU for 40 years – the important thing is not whether it leaves in 2019 or 2021, but whether it leaves at all. And Mrs May is completely right that businesses and voters want the minimum possible amount of disruption, including one predictably shift in arrangements rather than two messy and chaotic ones: first when we leave, then when we get a new deal in place.

The problem is that again, it feels like this message came too late. Mrs May waxed eloquent about the need for a bespoke British deal – something bigger and bolder than the CETA deal between the EU and Canada, but without the one-way rule-taking of EEA membership. She also spoke about the need for a dispute resolution mechanism that was ambitious and evolving, which did not involve one side’s courts imposing their views on the other. The speech was littered with adjectives like “comprehensive”, “ambitious”, “bold”, “creative”, “imaginative” and all the rest of it.

For all but the most zealous Leavers and Remainers, this is a best-of-both-worlds solution – certainly the best that we could hope for under the circumstances. We will keep our access to European markets, while retaining the freedom to control our borders and strike new trade deals. Cake-having, and cake-eating.

But how will this beautiful bouncing Brexit deal actually work? On that, Mrs May was completely silent. Which, at this stage in proceedings, just doesn’t feel good enough.

I wrote after Lancaster House that Mrs May had chosen the best possible version of Brexit – but also the most difficult to bring off. And we are no longer in the blue-sky thinking stage of Brexit, if we ever were. We are in the middle of negotiations, scrambling to get a ferociously complex deal in place before we reach the cliff edge, in an environment in which Michel Barnier and his team have far less of an incentive to bow to Britain’s wishes than we do to theirs. (Yes, Europe runs a trade deficit with Britain – but we are a small enough part of each individual country’s trade for them to be able to bear a severe disruption better than we can.)

The quid pro quo Mrs May is offering, of course, is of continued payment in to the EU’s coffers during that two-year period: no member country will lose out, she promised. As carrots go, this is a large and tempting one. But will it be enough?

Compared to Lancaster House, today’s speech could not help but seem rather underwhelming. That speech offered clear answers to the big future questions. This merely repositioned and repackaged existing policy – a necessary task, probably, but hardly as exciting. It succeeded on its own terms, but it still felt as if Mrs May had flown the Cabinet, and much of the British press corps, to Italy purely so that she could work in some opening references to the Renaissance.

There was also an aggravating repeat of Philip Hammond’s bizarre promise that Britain would not seek an “unfair competitive advantage” over Europe – despite seeking a competitive advantage for its firms and workers being one of the most basic duties of government.

Yet perhaps the ultimate explanation for why this speech felt underwhelming was because, to a very large extent, the ball is no longer in Britain’s court.

Mrs May was not really setting out how things are going to be – she was, in effect, begging European leaders to accept her proposals, at least as a starting point for negotiation. And perhaps the most telling thing her speech was silent on was what will happen if they don’t.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX