Theresa May went to Florence, which we hear is lovely at this time of year, and gave a speech that was meant to kickstart the Brexit negotiations into the next stage: future trade deals and relationships. They have been stuck in the first stage: the divorce agreement, and the EU has not only said there has been ‘no decisive progress‘ but also that the UK is being ‘nostalgic and unrealistic’. With this stalemate and only a year left of negotiations, it was vital that the UK’s national leader step in with meaningful words to push things forward.
Looking at the word cloud at the top of this article, developed from the most common words in Theresa May’s speech, we can get a clear image of what she had to say: the UK wants new relationship with the EU. There are a lot of wants (she uses the word 32 times) and a big emphasis on ‘new’ (34 times).
Looking at what was in the speech, Theresa May promised to pay some money in future, in particular to access specific EU programs like the science network. And for an estimated two years, she offered to pay the UK’s membership fee, accept the EU’s rules and regulations (including Free Movement) and effectively ‘stay in while pulling out.’
From a future relationship perspective, these statements were clear, up to a point. There is no explanation of how the UK will get around the non-money barriers to accessing those programs (participating in EU science requires acceptance of the ECJ for example) or what will happen after the cliff-edge that she proposes to kick down the road a little. More importantly though, all she was clear about was the future relationship. She offered no solutions to the divorce agreement – and that was why she was meant to be there!
On Northern Ireland (and its border with the Republic of Ireland), she said, “we will protect progress made in Northern Ireland” and “we will not accept any physical infrastructure at the border”, but had nothing to add to the vacuous and deluded Brexit position paper from two weeks ago – leaving everyone in the state of ‘no progress’ we were in before.
On EU citizens rights, she said “We have also made significant progress on how we look after European nationals living in the UK” – but saying it doesn’t make it so. She added, “we want you to stay; we value you; and we thank you” but what was missing was the admission that ‘we have no way to process your right to remain and no plans for how to do that anytime soon.’
On the divorce bill, she said, “The UK will honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership”, which is good because it’s legally required to… but what she still hasn’t solved is the vital question of how do we calculate what is owed. Instead she offered more haggling when she said, “Some of the claims made on this issue are exaggerated and unhelpful”, more haggling and no progress.
With no solutions offered for each of these 3 issues, there can be no progress from stage 1 of the negotiations. The question arises, why did she feel the need to step in? Why fly to Florence to pitch some spin and window dressing around a complete lack of content?
Theresa May runs her government as an exercise in perception management. So the question is, what perception was she trying to engineer here, and to what end? The most likely thing, going by tabloid headlines, is that she wants to appear willing and positive so that the EU’s continued refusal to deal seems vindictive by contrast. If that’s her goal, it can only be so that the Brexit government looks good, even as it fails to get a deal.
If the Prime Minister is preparing the way for ‘no deal’, we should all start preparing too.