British PM Theresa May delivers speech in Florence on Brexit plans, UK’s future

By Boris Zyumbyulev || Staff Writer

Last Friday, the 22nd, Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the UK, went to the “Renaissance heart” of Europe to deliver a speech aimed at shedding light on the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

The speech’s intent was to break the impasse between the EU Brexit negotiating team led by Michel Bernier and their UK counterpart led by David Davis. During their third round of talks that ended towards the end of August, both parties raised criticism to the other for the unsuccessful so far negotiations. However, their interests diverged towards different issues. Davis pointed out EU’s unwillingness to discuss the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU, and the future of already in-effect trade deals made with other countries. Bernier, on the other hand, found the UK’s team had come without a clear idea of what they wanted, and avoided any discussion of the “Divorce Bill” the UK is expected to pay. The small progress made concerned the state of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland: the agreement was that there will not be a physical border between the two states.

In addition to the stalemate of the Brexit negotiations, May’s speech follows Jean-Claude Juncker’s, State of the Union Speech last week, where he addressed the European Union and the nations in it. As acting President of the European Commision, Juncker outlined a general direction he wants to take the Union to. In his speech he called for a more unified Union, which included a call for one speed, one currency, one president. These, respectively, mean he aims at integrating Eastern Europe and bring them on par with West and then develop from there; bring all nations under the umbrella of the euro currency, possibly with a new European Finance or Economics Minister to monitor the process and the economic well being of the different members; and the merge of the presidencies of the European Council and the European Commision.

In light of Europe entering a new age of development, while the negotiations continued to deteriorate between the two unions, May addressed Florence with a 5000-word speech. In her own words, “for many, this is an exciting time, full of promise; for others it is a worrying one.”

As she began, May reaffirmed the conviction that the UK wants a good, special relationship with the Union. That is, both have faced and still do face the same challenges, and in the spirit of Liberalism, now is not the time to ruin that relationship. Here she mentioned immigration and terrorism, the global threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons proliferation, and climate change affecting us all. Thus, May claimed that the British people’s decision to leave the EU was not a “repudiation of” the UK’s commitment to work with the rest of Europe to face those challenges. The decision aims only to bring back sovereignty to the UK. In the EU’s “pooling of sovereignty … countries [are] in the minority [they] must sometimes accept decisions they do not want … [which] can be very hard to change.” May thus explained Brexit as a way for the British to again hold their own politicians accountable for their British-ly produced policies. That is, without having to deal with Brussels.

On the negotiations, the Prime Minister echoed some aspects of David Davis’s position that the teams should focus not only on the divorce bill, but also on the future economic and social relationship between the UK and the EU. But even so, May assured that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will not be an issue and there will not be a physical border, effectively promising to respect the Good Friday Agreement. In addition, she also stressed that no EU citizen currently living in the UK is under any threat from removal or losing their rights. By the time the UK has officially left the EU, the rights of the non-British citizens will be codified into law, and are thus can continue living without worry.

Having covered the most pressing social issues that were generated by the Brexit referendum, May moved onto discussing the possible economic and trading partnership between the two unions. In order to highlight her point, she described the two other possible trading models the UK could adopt post-Brexit: one being the European Economic Area and the other the traditional Free Trade Agreement (the most recent being with Canada). However, May feels “We can do so much better than this” stemming from the fact that in the EEA, the UK will not have a voice when trade is negotiated or regulated, while a FTA is essentially a deal devised from scratch and it takes a long time to complete. Both will not do justice to the good relationship the UK and the EU have had while the former was a member. So May wants to “…let us be creative as well as practical in designing an ambitious economic partnership which respects the freedoms and principles of the EU, and the wishes of the British people.”

To clarify, she denounced the need to impose tariffs where there are none now; underlined how both unions share the same fundamental beliefs of “free trade, rigorous and fair competition, strong consumer rights, and that trying to beat other countries’ industries by unfairly subsidising one’s own is a serious mistake,” and stressed that the British will hold goods and services to the same high regulatory standard as the European Union. In order to avoid “shoddy” trading, May also proposed the conception of a new “dispute resolution mechanism” that is not controlled by either party’s courts, to avoid “shoddy” trading and friction at the border.

After her position on the economic partnership, May introduced also her take on security and how will the EU and UK work together towards defending Europe. The Prime Minister proposed that a new treaty be signed that will be unprecedented in “its breadth, taking in cooperation on diplomacy, defence and security, and development, and its depth, in terms of the degree of engagement that we would aim to deliver.” The “bold” proposal will preserve the mature bilateral relations between the UK and the remaining member states of the EU, and defend the shared values of freedom and human rights under the new partnership, which will be “sufficiently versatile and dynamic to respond to the ever-evolving threats” that the continent faces. However, May did not mention anything more specific as to how that treaty will be signed and how exactly will the partnership look like.

However, May did give a relative answer to when the British and the Europeans can expect this to be finalized. In March 2019, the UK will officially leave the European Union. Even so, May believes that the best process of implementing the future relationship she envisions is through a limited-timed grace period, where people and businesses will have the time to adjust to the new reality, and treaties can be adopted through the appropriate legal channels. During that time, roughly estimated by May to two years, the UK will continue functioning as a EU member, without participating in the the governing bodies of the European Union, while focusing on establishing the future she outlined in her speech. In addition to that, May assured that the EU budget will be maintained whole; in other words, the UK will honour its commitments made throughout its membership and will continue to pay its dues during the grace period. And after an extended conclusion on how the partnership will be a good thing if the negotiations go well, May ends with the an image of a bright future: “A partnership of interests, a partnership of values; a partnership of ambition for a shared future: the UK and the EU side by side delivering prosperity and opportunity for all our people.”

The international community was quick to react to her speech. One of the key political players in the Brexit campaign, Nigel Farage, thinks May wants Brexit “only in name.”  The British party Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, May’s main opponent in Parliament, said “She’s had fifteen months to think about that, and she goes all the way to Florence – and we didn’t even get a chance to see Florence in the background – to tell us what we already know.” Ireland’s Prime Minister, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, shrugged off the speech as “no game changer,” echoing Corbyn’s position. Michel Bernier, the Chief Negotiator of Brexit for the European Union, saw “willingness to move forward” in May’s speech, but expects the UK’s “negotiators [to explain] the concrete implication of Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech.”

Finally, the European Commission itself tweeted out their response, where they praised “PM Theresa May [expressing] constructive spirit which is also the spirit of the EU during this unique negotiation.”

Sophomore Boris Zyumbyulev is a staff writer. His email is bzyumbyu@fandm.edu.

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