In a parallel universe, a group has democratically and fairly voted to separate legally and economically from an association that it no longer wanted to be a member of. The process of leaving is openly and agreeably negotiated between the two parties – there are some disagreements, as you would expect in such discussions, but resolutions are sought promptly for the benefit of both factions and other interested or affected groupings. Plans are clear, options are considered and an amicable split is agreed punctually. In a parallel universe…

The chance of such a scenario developing in the Brexit negotiations is unlikely. Theresa May’s speech on Friday in Florence was billed as Brexit 2.0 – a chance for the British Prime Minister to assertively and decisively provide more clarity on Britain’s position in the negotiations. However, for all the hype and expectation, for all the build-up, for all the anticipation, Mrs May’s speech was reticent and short on the key details that need to be addressed and negotiated within the 18 months that remain of the two-year Article 50 negotiation period.

Whilst Mrs May began her address by linking Florence with the Renaissance, her contribution in the Italian city was not so much a rejuvenation in clarity as a perpetuation of ambiguity.

However, it would be unfair to catalogue the speech as entirely unhelpful. The very title of the address “Shared History – Shared Challenges – Shared Future” belied the position that the UK government is seeking to establish – viewing the future relationship with the EU as one of partnership and cooperation rather than separation and competition, an admirable ambition.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister did provide some firm details about the aspiration for a two-year transition period as well as specified some elements of budgetary commitments. She also dismissed talk of seeking trade deals akin to Canada and Norway or any membership of the EEA – we are in, as she stated, “an unprecedented position” and thus able to strike “an unprecedented deal”.

Theresa May appeared, at times, more assertive, confident and, dare one say, optimistic.

Yet optimism, confidence and assertiveness are insufficient qualities, in themselves, to successfully complete a negotiation – especially when such optimism is delivered in the somewhat disjointed and strained manner that has come to characterise Mrs May’s presentation of keynote speeches – whereby convincing herself seems as much of her undertaking as convincing her audience.

To conclude the negotiations and settle an agreeable trading relationship as well as the plethora of additional complexities that litter the crib sheet of issues “to be addressed”, will not be straightforward and the British Prime Minister’s speech was regrettably deficient of copious clarity on such concerns. There was not, for example, much to reassure EU nationals, certainly no offering of hard guarantees – an area that EU officials are eager to resolve. Nor was there an abundance of detail on the economic and financial aspects of the future association – certainly nothing to substantially reassure business interests.

The concept of a unique arrangement remained a key facet of her talk but the idea that Britain can achieve such a deal is perhaps idealistic. When the political imperative within Brussels is to ensure that the UK does not emerge with a deal that could entice others away from the trade bloc, it is unlikely that Mr Barnier and other EU officials will allow Britain to “have its cake and eat it”. Furthermore, the acknowledgement that the EU can be more reactive in the talks appears to have been forgotten – the UK are the side that have decided to leave and thus the EU are in the position whereby they can wait for the UK to reveal their cards; it is a point oft-forgotten in the UK government – although it is unlikely, the EU doesn’t have to offer anything.

Although Mrs May did reiterate that no deal is better than a bad deal, the degree to which she believes this is questionable and should be countenanced by an acknowledgement that it is an assertion that is perhaps repeated to quieten/appease certain sections of her party. No deal might be better than a bad deal but the concept of what a ‘bad deal’ actually entails, is open to interpretation…

So, what have we learned from Florence? Disappointingly little. In essence, it provided a level of detail which one would have expected from Mrs May when she spoke in January at Lancaster House; not six months into the negotiations. The domestic political uncertainty both within her own party and Parliament in general following June’s election is undoubtedly a factor in the guarded nature of the talks thus far – certainly not helping to oil the wheels of the negotiations. Moreover, with party conference season approaching, Brexit might once again be side-lined and overshadowed by the machinations of the Conservative party.

Grazie mille for the speech Mrs May but, with a Dickensian-plea, please can we have some more?


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