Something strange happened in Florence today. Visitors to the Basilica of Santa Croce, one of that fine city’s finer churches, were left with the unmistakable impression that they heard the sound of laughter from Machiavelli’s tomb.
It was, I am sure, only a coincidence that Theresa May, Britain’s stumblebum prime minister, gave her ‘big speech’ on Brexit somewhere else in Florence today:
New chapter. Vibrant debate. Partner. Shared challenges. Partnership. International order. Commitment. Resolve. Partners. Climate change. Shared values. Family of European nations. Profound. Concrete progress. Significant progress. Generations to come. Dynamic. Bold. Comprehensive. Unprecedented. Strategic. Versatile. Dynamic. Shared values. Partnership. Cooperation and partnership. Partnership. Partnership and friendship. Vision.
Mrs May has today given her much vaunted Florence speech. Billed as a set-piece aimed at unlocking the talks, it has fallen flat. It is remarkable only in how little is actually said… The real question, we suspect, is really one of what she intended to say when she booked this speech. The location and timing were far from accidental and talks were delayed to make space for the speech. It had to have been something more substantive originally. She can’t have thought this was worth our time.
There is a good chance that Boris Johnson’s intervention on the weekend was designed to sabotage the intended speech and what we actually got was Speech B, designed to buy time to avoid a civil war before the Tory conference. This though, only adds to the uncertainty. May has to make choices before spring next year or major banks will walk.
There may be something to that. Not long after the speech concluded, Johnson, a clown content for now to remain in the big tent, tweeted this:
PM speech was positive, optimistic & dynamic – and rightly disposes of the Norway option! Forwards!
Forwards! The spirit of the Somme endures.
An excellent speech from the PM in Florence – delivering on the wishes of the British people
To be fair, the speech wasn’t all nothing:
[P]erhaps because of our history and geography, the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe.
Very true. And that matters.
But the substance was either missing, or bad.
We are proposing a bold new strategic agreement that provides a comprehensive framework for future security, law enforcement and criminal justice co-operation: a treaty between the UK and the EU.
No one sensible should argue about the need for close cooperation in these areas (such as member states of the EU currently enjoy with allies elsewhere, whether in law enforcement or, in many cases, NATO) but this seems to suggest something deeper, a suggestion that, coming from an authoritarian who was (and is) a staunch supporter of the noxious European Arrest Warrant , has ominous implications for Britons’ individual rights.
Then there’s May’s rejection of post-Brexit membership of the European Economic Area (the ‘Single Market’) on the same basis (the ‘Norway option’) as that now enjoyed by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, three countries that are neither in the EU nor (I mention this yet again for the avoidance of remarkably persistent doubt) its Customs Union:
European Economic Area membership would mean the UK having to adopt at home – automatically and in their entirety – new EU rules. Rules over which, in future, we will have little influence and no vote.
Some EU rules, with a right of reservation and, under certain circumstances, an opt-out. As to the ‘no say’, it is amazing that that is a canard that still flies, but there we are.
Having rejected the obvious off-the-shelf solution represented by ‘Norway’, May then says that what she wants is:
A new economic partnership, would be comprehensive and ambitious. It would be underpinned by high standards, and a practical approach to regulation that enables us to continue to work together in bringing shared prosperity to our peoples for generations to come.
To be fair, May recognizes that agreeing a bespoke agreement (something in which the rest of the EU has shown little interest) might be a touch complex, an uncomfortable reality that may lead to chaos if it’s not in place by the time that the deadline (March 2019) foolishly triggered by May arrives.
And it won’t be in place.
So what May proposes is a transition period (she estimates it would last about two years) during which the UK will effectively be in the EU, but without, ahem, any say.
And if that extra two years is not enough?
To believe that this ‘solution’ offers the sort of certainty that businesses need (the sort of certainty that the Norway option—if available— would have offered) is delusional. In that last respect, at least, Theresa May’s Brexit policy is consistent.
The EU’s chief negotiator, the sinister Michel Barnier, welcomed May’s “constructive spirit”, but the penultimate sentence of his response says all that needs to be said:
We look forward to the United Kingdom’s negotiators explaining the concrete implications of Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech.
As do we all.