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Theresa May to go to Florence & clarify her Brexit view

Does the prime minister want a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit? Yes, over a year has gone and we’re still asking the same question.


The prime minister will make a big Brexit speech in Europe’s “historical heart” on 22 September. Theresa May’s office confirmed she would go to Florence to set out the UK’s vision for a future relationship with the EU and give an update on Brexit negotiations so far.

The prime minister wanted to give a speech on the UK’s future relationship with Europe in its historical heart. The UK has had deep cultural and economic ties spanning centuries with Florence, a city known for its historical trading power.

As the UK leaves the EU we will retain those close ties. As the prime minister has said on many occasions, we are leaving the EU, not Europe.

James Slack, spokesperson for the prime minister

Jack Blanchard notes in his Politico London Playbook, the prime minister is “a politician who has always made her biggest plays through set-piece speeches, rather than in interviews or off-the-cuff remarks” and so her speech in Florence could very well be significant. The European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, certainly thinks so. Rumours of a speech surfaced last week when Verhofstadt revealed the prime minister was planning an “important intervention” that would mean the next round of Brexit negotiations had to be delayed a week.

Little progress was made during the last round of negotiations with EU with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, calling on the UK to “start negotiating seriously”. And following Brexit secretary David Davis’ request for “flexibility” in negotiations, Barnier said: “To be flexible you need two points, our point and their point.” This was in reference to the UK’s refusal so far to put out its position paper on a financial settlement, one of three key issues in the Withdrawal Agreement highlighted by the EU.

There has also been added pressure for the government to clarify its position on Brexit by businesses. As we reported yesterday, Toyota executive vice president Didier Leroy urged for clarity “as quickly possible” and warned “the longer we have to wait, the more potential there is to move to another factory [out of the UK].”

And on Radio 4’s Today programme, John Lewis chairman Sir Charlie Mayfield said: “Brexit is having an effect on the economy, no question.” He added sterling and confidence has been hit by Brexit uncertainty and called for “a serious parliamentary debate to figure out what kind of Brexit we’re going to have in the best interests of the country and the economy.”

So will her Florence speech give clarity or more “constructive ambiguity”? So far, the UK’s vision for a future partnership with the EU has been set out in a number of future partnership papers published as Brexit negotiations go on. However, whilst proposing various options, the gist of them appears to show the UK wants to effectively recreate the status quo at the same time as stating the UK will leave the institutions that enable the status quo.

Will it be the status quo or dire straits or even the status quo to dire straits?

Earlier this week, the chancellor Philip Hammond told a House of Lords committee the government was seeking a transition deal that “looks a lot like the status quo”.

Here’s The Leave Alliance’s take on this (they advocate for leaving the EU but argue for remaining in the EEA and joining the EFTA):

You can find out more about The Leave Alliance’s take on Brexit at leavehq.com.

David Davis previously ruled out the UK joining EFTA and remaining in the EEA (although he wasn’t sure if parliamentary approval was needed). But a status quo transition or status quo future deal could very well mean the UK staying in the single market through the EEA as well as continuing to take part in the EU’s customs union. This, although simpler and far more achievable than attempting to recreate them, isn’t without its own uncertainties. Ian Dunt, author of ‘Brexit: What the hell happens now?’ explains what this option would mean in three parts in his blog on politics.co.uk.

An alternative suggestion put forward for May’s speech is that she will confirm the government’s intention to leave the EEA. If so, the government could simply be signalling its intent to leave with “no deal”. There would be no “status quo” and we’d head straight off the cliff edge into “dire straits”.

The Leave Alliance suggests the prime minister will use the speech to bypass the European Commission, who is leading on Brexit negotiations, and invite member states to agree a new EEA agreement that is based purely on trade. Click on the tweet below to see the full thread.

As The Leave Alliance concludes, if this is May’s approach, it would be an “attempt to circumvent the entire process” and “a refusal to engage.” Given the EU’s unity so far on this – including on the four freedoms that underpin its internal market, it seems unlikely to work. In that case, we are back to leaving with “no deal” territory.

Basically, over a year since the referendum and with the clock ticking to the exit date, we are still wondering whether it’ll be a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit. Hopefully we’ll find out more about May’s Brexit view in Florence next week.

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