Theresa May’s speech in Florence had a twin aim. First, to persuade the EU27 that the Government’s approach to the Brexit negotiation is constructive, reasonable and developed enough to enable talks to move the next stage, thereby beginning discussions about a fully-fledged trade and security deal. Second, to keep her divided Cabinet, whose polarities are represented by Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond, together.
Her main means of addressing this task was to make concessions on the detail of her position while clinging to its substance – and leaving unresolved the parts of it that her Chancellor and Foreign Secretary are still disputing. So on security, she dropped the previous implied threat of British non-co-operation or withdrawal. But this stance might be tested were the negotiations to collapse altogether. On money, she confirmed that in effect the UK will cough up for any implementation period – or, as she put it, “the UK will honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership”, which comes to much the same thing. But is no question of paying for Single Market access Norway-style when that period ends (or none that can be discerned, at any rate). On the rights of EU nationals in Britain, the Prime Minister said that she wants “the UK courts to be able to take into account the judgments of the European Court of Justice with a view to ensuring consistent interpretation”. But some might do so in any event. She had nothing new to say about Ireland – one of the three big issues that Michael Barnier is using to justify the present talks impasse.
However, it remains the case that, as Johnson put it in his recent Daily Telegraph article, we are “leaving the customs union and the single market, leaving the penumbra of the European Court of Justice; taking back control of our borders, cash, laws”. So the essentials of May’s “Brexit means Brexit” are still in place. So far, so good: it cannot fairly be claimed that she has crossed the red lines which we set out earlier this week. But three main areas of ambiguity remain.
The first concerns the proposed implementation period, for which May produced a proposed length (of “around two years”). There has always been a difference, recognised in the very terms that the Prime Minister uses, between a period that is time-limited, and seeks to implement an agreement (“implementation”) and one that isn’t, and aims merely to kick the can down the road (“transition”). It is not clear how the first can be prevented from morphing into the second. True, the EU27 and the Commission don’t seem to want an indefinite transition. And, true, May spoke of agreeing a time limit under Article 50. But even if our computer systems and customs arrangements are fit for purpose in 2021 – or whenever the implementation period ends – the pro-Remain Coalition will once again warn of “going over a cliff-edge”. By then she may well be gone from Number Ten, and her successor may be vulnerable to pressure.
The second is immigration. During the proposed implementation period, the Prime Minister proposes that free movement continue – though there will be registration, and presumably new restricted access to benefits. It follows that she wants Single Market and Customs Union membership to continue de facto, though not de jure. Some hardish Brexiteers will worry that this potentially takes Britain down the road to full EEA membership, complete with ECJ jurisdiction, if the suggested implementation period happens, and turns out to take longer than May expects.
The third is the Switzerland v Canada debate. In other words, will post-Brexit Britain be more like the former, which tends to shadow the EU’s tax, regulatory and social model, or the latter, which does not? At first glance, the Prime Minister seemed to lean against her Foreign Secretary and Michael Gove, who want to take the last route: she explicitily rejected both a “traditional free trade agreement”, which she identified with Canada, and EEA membership, which she said would mean “a loss of democratic control”. This careful balancing did not name a Swiss-style option – so-called “EEA light”. But a closer reading of the speech aligns May nearer to the DEFRA Secretary and Johnson. She spoke of “we and our European friends” having “different goals” or sometimes sharing “the same goals but want to achieve them through different means”, and of sometimes achieving “the same goals in the same ways”. That sounds more like having the Canadian-style freedom not to follow the EU’s lead than Swiss-type constraints.
But above all, May wanted to keep her Government together, and appeal to the EU27 above Michel Barnier’s head. She seems to have succeeded in the former aim, although in key respects she has done little more, when it comes to the latter, than kick the can further down the road. And is very doubtful that she will succeed in this last objective, and move the EU27 to force the opening of fuller talks before the New Year. It may even be that she believes the Switzerland-Canada choice will be made by Prime Ministers other than her – because she will leave Downing Street in 2019, having established a framework for Britain post-Brexit, but not made the choice which it allows.
Either way, the speech sets out what May wants – but there is no guarantee that the EU27 and the Commission will accept it. The Prime Minister is pushing an a la carte arrangement, representing Britain’s unique relationship with its neighbours; they favour a table d’hote one, and could hold out for it. They may dig their heels in on making any implementation period as much like EU membership as possible – ECJ role and all. They may kick against having one at all. There may not even be a trade and security deal in the first place – and one can’t have an implementation period with nothing to implement. The Prime Minister confirmed in the Q & A following the speech that the Government’s position is still that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. Our key concern remains that, deal or none, our customs and computers won’t be ready – whenever they’re needed. May did nothing to reassure her listeners that it will be otherwise.