Friday 20 July 2018

Broadly positive speech by May perhaps signals the end of the beginning

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her speech in Florence Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers her speech in Florence Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/PA
John Downing

John Downing

We have had too many false dawns since Brexit dawned upon us in all its horror on that Friday morning, June 24, 2016.

But it is time to find some positives in this "one-more-time would-be-landmark-speech" by British Prime Minister Theresa May in Florence yesterday.

The fateful words of her war-time predecessor Winston Churchill, as he talked about a victory in the battle of El Alamein in November 1942, seem apposite.

"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning," Churchill said, trying to extract a positive without talking it up too much. History tells us that three full years of war horrors were to follow, so his prudence was well judged.

We put the stress on the "perhaps", as we extrapolate that Mrs May's vague, but positive words may begin real talks between the EU and the UK, to replace three rounds of negotiations in which they have talked at one another. But only time will tell.

In her much-trailed and keenly watched Florence speech, billed as a deadlock-breaker, Mrs May promised to honour Britain's existing EU budget dues, under the Brussels seven-year 2014-2020 funding regime. She did not cite a specific figure - but it is understood that the offer amounts to €20bn for each of the outstanding post-Brexit years 2019 and 2020 over which the budget regime runs.

That will also be a "transition programme" after Brexit kicks in on March 29, 2019.

She also sketched some legal rights guarantees for some three million EU nationals living in the UK.

The prime minister also pledged to sticking with the EU on security co-operation.

"We want to be your strongest friend and partner as the EU and UK thrive side by side," she said in a markedly conciliatory-pitched speech.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, welcomed the speech. "May has expressed a constructive spirit which is also the spirit of the European Union during this unique negotiation," Mr Barnier said in a statement issued in Brussels.

"The speech shows a willingness to move forward, as time is of the essence."

But will it, in reality, move things towards EU demands on "sufficient progress" in three key areas - EU citizens' rights, Ireland's Border, and that UK exit bill - before talks can turn to the EU-UK post-Brexit relationship, especially on trade?

Read More: May sets out vision for a two-year 'transition' period in Brexit talks

It is too early to say with any kind of certainty in the absence of necessary detail.

A fourth round of talks begins on Monday in Brussels and much will depend on the details fleshing out Mrs May's necessarily very general words.

Many Brussels diplomats doubted whether this speech brought enough fresh impetus to advance the Brexit talks to a second phase after a key EU leaders' summit on October 19 and 20 in Brussels.

There was relief among British and Irish business at the confirmation that London is seeking an "as-you-were" two-year transition period, potentially bringing things up to spring 2021.

If that is borne out, it will avert the worst of potential chaos. But the doubt and trepidation for business and jobs still continues pending the shape of the final EU-UK relationship.

There was a guarded welcome from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney for what Mrs May had to say.

Mr Varadkar is due in Downing Street for talks with Mrs May on Monday. Doubtless, he will be asking for more details.

Irish Independent

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business