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Theresa May’s Florence speech: Delaying Brexit

The prime minister confirmed the UK is seeking a “status quo” transition with the UK continuing to follow the EU’s rules and regulations.


In the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence, Theresa May confirmed the UK would leave the EU in March 2019. She also confirmed the UK that Brexit meant the UK would leave the single market and customs union. However, Brexit – in that sense – would not happen for another two years. This is because the UK is seeking a transition deal that would effectively keep the status quo for another two years. The main change being that after the UK’s withdrawal, EU citizens arriving in the UK would have to register. This is a requirement other EU countries already have and is available within the EU’s free movement framework. The prime minister added that during this “strictly time-limited period”, the “existing structure of EU rules and regulations” would apply.

Here’s the relevant section in her speech:

“So during the implementation period access to one another’s markets should continue on current terms and Britain also should continue to take part in existing security measures. And I know businesses, in particular, would welcome the certainty this would provide.
The framework for this strictly time-limited period, which can be agreed under Article 50, would be the existing structure of EU rules and regulations.
How long the period is should be determined simply by how long it will take to prepare and implement the new processes and new systems that will underpin that future partnership.”

This is a much clearer vision of the transition deal than previously given. Although there’s still a fudge over the time period…

A new economic partnership

The prime minister said the UK wanted an ambitious new economic partnership with the EU. But she wasn’t able to expand on what that would like. May did, however, say that this shouldn’t be based on EEA membership or a traditional free trade agreement such as the one recently agreed with Canada. In The Times, Francis Elliot’s report of yesterday’s cabinet meeting said that whilst ministers were agreed on transition, they were still “starkly divided over what should be Britain’s final destination.” May’s lack of detail on this “new economic partnership” seems to reflect this.

From her speech:

“So the question for us now in building a new economic partnership is not how we bring our rules and regulations closer together, but what we do when one of us wants to make changes.
One way of approaching this question is to put forward a stark and unimaginative choice between two models: either something based on European Economic Area membership; or a traditional Free Trade Agreement, such as that the EU has recently negotiated with Canada.
I don’t believe either of these options would be best for the UK or best for the European Union.”

Has May done enough to progress negotiations?

For talks to progress to a transition deal or the future partnership, the EU wants to see “sufficient progress” made on three key issues in the Withdrawal Agreement: citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the financial settlement. Although she added nothing new on the issue of the Irish border, May did offer more on citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. She said her guarantee on protecting the rights of EU citizens in the UK “is real”.

She further added “I doubt anyone with real experience of the UK would doubt the independence of our courts or of the rigour with which they will uphold people’s legal rights.” But as we wrote in our earlier article, there is a problem of trust here – not of UK courts but of the UK government. The recent reports of home secretary Amber Rudd’s defiance of a court order is an example EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier highlighted regarding trust.

Beyond Theresa May’s speech, there are still trust issues

The prime minister’s assurance that UK courts would continue to take into account judgements of the European Court of Justice may be seen a little more positively by the EU.

“Where there is uncertainty around underlying EU law, I want the UK courts to be able to take into account the judgments of the European Court of Justice with a view to ensuring consistent interpretation. On this basis, I hope our teams can reach firm agreement quickly.”

On the financial settlement, the EU is also likely to have been encouraged by May’s speech. As reported before the speech, the prime minister assured other EU members that they will not need “to pay more or receive less over the remainder of the current budget plan” as a result of Brexit. She added: “The UK will honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership.”

You can see the full speech at gov.uk.

The fourth round of Brexit negotiations begin next week in Brussels. Whether May’s intervention has been successful is likely to depend on how much clarity on the specifics UK negotiators can give.

Here’s initial reaction from MEP Manfred Webber on the speech:

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