Euan McColm: We'll have to grin and bear May's best of both worlds

THE Prime Minister's Florence speech contained little to reassure Remainers, Leavers '“ or indeed EU negotiators '¨in Brussels, writes Euan McColm
Theresa May gives her speech at the Complesso Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Picture:  Jeff J Mitchell/GettyTheresa May gives her speech at the Complesso Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Picture:  Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
Theresa May gives her speech at the Complesso Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

There was something in the Prime Minister’s speech, said Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, for both Leavers and Remainers.

Moments after Theresa May attempted on Friday to outline, in the Italian city of Florence, some kind of vision of a joyous post-Brexit relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, Davidson went out to bat.

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Hers was a loyal, if unconvincing, contribution. Davidson – a leading Remainer during last year’s referendum campaign – welcomed May’s proposal of a two-year transition period after the UK leaves the EU in 2019 during which financial contributions would continue to be made by Westminster and existing trading agreements would be retained.

If this was something for pro-EU voters, for those who feel differently there was the PM’s re-assertion of the fact that Brexit was inevitable.

Davidson’s optimism was all very well, but listening to May’s speech, my impression was that it contained things to anger rather than inspire the confidence of Leavers and Remainers.

Those who believe departure from the EU to be a self-destructive move may, indeed, welcome a prolonged period of transition; why wouldn’t they? But May’s proposal – should it be acceptable to the EU – will do nothing but, briefly, postpone the inevitable. Leaving slightly later is still leaving. There was not, really, much in that speech for those who found themselves on the losing side last year.

Leavers, on the other hand, may be reassured by the Prime Minister’s insistence that Brexit will proceed but they may wonder why, if the UK is to leave the union in 2019, the government wishes to pay another £20 billion into EU coffers during the succeeding two years. It was a hardly a surprise when former Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, reacted to the speech by describing its content as a “victory for Westminster and the political class” which was guilty of “giving a big two fingers up to 17.4 million people”.

May’s speech was intended to do two things. First, it was to reset the fraught relationship between the UK and the EU in the hope that Brexit negotiations might proceed smoothly and, second, it was to reassure voters – on both sides of the EU divide – at home that the government has some kind of clue about how to proceed with this expensive divorce.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier – who did not attend the speech – issued a statement in which he said the Prime Minister had “expressed a constructive spirit which is also the spirit of the European Union during this unique negotiation”; May’s speech showed a willingness to move forward when time is of the essence.

Barnier added that May’s remarks about EU citizens living in the UK – she suggested they would to be allowed to stay, post-Brexit – were a step forward, before delivering the sucker punch that the PM’s words “must now be translated into a precise negotiating position of the UK government”.

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Brexiteer government ministers such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have been especially pugnacious when it comes to the question of how Britain should handle the negotiations – roughly: Johnny Foreigner can whistle for a penny by way of a financial settlement – and so we should not be surprised if Barnier and his negotiation team proceed cautiously, even after the PM’s speech.

The Prime Minister did not, then, transform the relationship between her government and the European Union. She simply tried to make it less appalling. We won’t know until negotiations get moving whether she succeeded.

And if May did not instantly transform the tense relationship between Britain and the EU, nor did she succeed in giving the impression to voters that she and her government have a coherent plan for the way forward. The newly proposed transitional period points to an administration not properly prepared for the task ahead.

May’s speech was full of warm words about a Brexit deal – followed by a close relationship – in the interests of both the UK and the EU. This undoubtedly sounded like level-headed stuff (or treachery, if you take the Farage view of Europe) but the fact remains that the UK hasn’t many cards to play.

It has never – since the moment Britons voted last June to leave the EU – been the case that Brexit could proceed on terms which both sides of the negotiation would be happy with. The EU, having been told to do one by British voters, has no interest in making departure from its ranks a painless experience.

The decision to quit the EU came as a blow to the institution, which learned that decades of co-operation could be brought to an end quite easily. This being so, the European Union has no option but to do all it can to see that the UK’s decision is – ultimately – regarded by others as a colossal mistake.

Standing in Florence in front of cabinet colleagues, including Johnson, the Prime Minister painted a best-of-both-worlds picture where the UK would leave the EU but the relationship shared by both would continue as if nothing had happened.

There’s a pathos about all of this. Through a fixed grin, the PM talks warmly about our European neighbours while knowing fine and well that those neighbours would very much enjoy her humiliation over Brexit.

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During last year’s referendum campaign, Leavers were bullish about how the UK might deal with the EU. They successfully sold the ludicrous notion that our government could dictate the terms of our departure – we’ll have all of the good stuff and none of the bad, thanks – and spoke of a future where money currently paid into EU coffers would be available to invest in the NHS.

But, as the Prime Minister tries to get Brexit negotiations back on track, it’s abundantly clear that departure from the EU will be anything but straightforward.

Theresa May’s speech in Florence did have something for both Leavers and Remainers – running through it, caressing every syllable, was the truth that Brexit is going to be painful.