Theresa May’s Florence Speech: From Flowery Language, a Garden Does Not Grow

By Cameron Peek
Photo: Pixabay/R. Berns, Creative Commons License

In her speech from Florence, Italy on September 22, Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom (UK) delivered words of hope and optimism, but little substance, for progressing the stalled negotiations regarding the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) in 2019. “When we come together in the spirit of ambition and innovation…open[ing] our minds to new thinking and new possibilities, we can forge a better, brighter future for all our peoples,” said May, suggesting that the new relationship to be forged is just a matter of thinking creatively. 

The fruit of May’s creative thinking was her proposition of a two-year post-Brexit transition period, during which the UK would still abide by EU regulations and enjoy market access while the final economic relationship continues to be negotiated. Under such an arrangement, May suggested the UK and EU could avoid forcing stakeholders to adapt to a set of interim rules while the final relationship is hashed out. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, 
Michel Barnierexpressed hope that May’s proposal would allow room for negotiations to proceed, so long as UK negotiators understood that during such time there would be no wiggling out of any EU regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judicial or enforcement instruments and structures.

Other EU leaders were less satisfied with May’s general lack of concreteness. “It is not a matter of creativity,” 
retorted German MEP Ingeborg Grässle, speaking specifically about the future UK-EU trade relationship, “It is a matter of logic and respect of basic EU law.” In response to May’s vague assurances that the UK legal system would continue to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and that the UK was hopeful in finding a no-physical-barrier solution along the Irish-UK border, French President Emmanuel Macron simply stated, “Before we move forward, we wish to clarify the issue of the regulation of European citizens, the financial terms of the exit and the question of Ireland.”

Perhaps the best hope for progress came from the conspicuous absence of the hardline Brexiteer mantra that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.” Originally put forth in her January 
speech at London’s Lancaster House, May’s departure from this rhetoric indicates she may intend to step away from the inflexible position that contributed to stalling negotiations thus far and towards a more realistic recognition that a hard Brexit would be catastrophic for the UK economy. Still, while this softer approach may open doors towards advancing negotiations with the EU, it is equally likely to cause problems for May back at home. There, the uncompromising faction of May’s Conservative party, who according to EU critics insist the UK be allowed to “have its cake and eat it too,” await May at the Conservative conference in Manchester being held from October 1-4. There, it waits to be seen whether May will stay the course in her optimistic reliance on “creative thinking.”


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