Theresa May is due to give a big Brexit speech this coming Friday 22nd September in Florence. With Boris Johnson having jumped the gun and penned his own Brexit vision a couple of days ago (fisked by me here), and with frustration on the EU side growing about the slow progress of negotiations, this speech better be good.

The problem is this speech cannot deliver.

This is why.

May could try to set out a speech that would appease her own side, namely her rowdy Cabinet Ministers, her even rowdier backbenchers, and the DUP propping up her government – all ready to scream betrayal at any moment. I am not even sure there is a line that can appease everyone from Jacob Rees Mogg to Anna Soubry, and from Boris Johnson to Philip Hammond, but the sort of direction that might just keep all of them happy would continue the line of hard-ish Brexit, leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, and doing this with a transition period up until 2021 or so – not beyond the next UK general election. She would need to say something on the financial settlement, but trying to keep the UK’s commitments as time constrained as possible. Plus the Tories are going to look at the numbers and worry about the billions, but not care what the money would be for.

The problem is that such a speech would be met with blunt opposition from the EU side, and especially in Ireland. For the EU side has its three areas where progress has to be made before the UK can advance to the second stage of the negotiations on the future trade relationship, and will assess those at a summit in October. These three areas are citizens rights, the financial settlement, and the Irish border issue, and the UK agreed to that staggering of negotiations back in June. The EU sees the UK’s position on citizens rights as not adequately generous, and would like to see May loosen her stance. On the financial settlement the EU side wants answers to what the UK would continue to see financed, and when, before anyone actually comes up with numbers, and is categorically opposed to seeing the March 2019 Brexit date as being the date when payments must stop. The UK approach sketched out here by Laura Kuenssberg would almost certainly not work.

And as if that were all easy, we then come to the even more complex issue – one that Boris failed to mention in his essay – the Irish border. Fintan O’Toole elegantly sets out what is at stake on the border issue here, and May has to date said little about preserving the politics of the Good Friday Agreement. Further, if we take this down to the level of practicalities, what can May offer? The UK government’s Northern Ireland paper emphasises an interim period, and a one-off change to a new customs regime, are likely (excerpt here – thanks Pawel). But what then? What is the long term solution? And would the EU and – importantly – the Republic of Ireland be content with something so unknown at the end of an interim period? I doubt it. Proposing some sort of special customs and or Single Market system for Northern Ireland might be acceptable to the EU side, but the DUP on the UK side will never accept that.

So in short: if what she says is to be acceptable to the Tory Party, the EU can never live with it. And were she to advance something the EU side could live with, the chances are that even if the Tories could cope with it, the DUP almost certainly could not.

There is of course a third option – obfuscate and prevaricate, which is what the Lancaster House speech back in January did. A similar accusation could also be made about Boris Johnson’s essay. If the reality is hard or complicated, just skip it, and dress yourself up in the comfort blanket of nationalism instead, also knowing that your allies in the right wing press will make you feel good regardless. The problem is that with the Article 50 clock ticking, the danger of the EU side stating there is not sufficient progress in negotiations to move to the second stage, and businesses getting tetchy about Brexit, makes such an approach highly irresponsible. Worse still would be to take the “a bad deal is worse than no deal” line out of the drawer, but that I now consider unlikely (although Fabian Zuleeg takes a more pessimistic view in this EPC paper).

However we look at it, May’s speech is an impossible balancing act. There can be no good outcome.

[Update 19.9.17, 0030]
It looks like some reorganisation of the UK government’s Brexit machinery is underway, and how that is to work could be explained in May’s speech. I’ve written an additional piece looking at that.

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