Can Mrs May bridge the gap?
THERESA MAY has picked one of the most romantic spots in Italy to pop the question about a “deep and special relationship” between Britain and Europe next week. A short walk from the hall in Florence where the Prime Minister is to deliver a keynote speech on Friday about the future for both after Brexit, stands a medieval bridge that has drawn generations of lovers. Courting couples clamp padlocks to the railings on the Ponte Vecchio in the hope of locking their love together for eternity.
Mrs May heads to the Tuscan capital on Friday with divorce rather than marriage in mind. Yet senior Tories expect that the Prime Minister wants to use her visit to talk about a strong and enduring bond between the UK and the EU in the future rather than continue the squabbling about the past. Her Florence speech is tipped to be a significant moment in the Brexit process.
The timing of Mrs May’s speech, just over a week ahead of the Conservative conference, suggests a desire to clarify the Government’s position at this stage of the EU departure negotiations before the Tories gather in Manchester.
Her aides do not want speculation about the talks to dominate the conference and are keen to clear the way for the Prime Minister to concentrate on setting out a radical vision for her domestic policy programme in her closing address to the party faithful.
And the choice of venue, in one of the six countries that were founder members of the European bloc, suggests Mrs May wants next week’s Brexit to be heard and digested in the capitals of the 27 nations staying in the EU after Britain leaves.
MPs expect her speech to flesh out her plans for an “implementation period” to smooth Britain’s departure from the EU following the formal exit on March 29, 2019.
They believe she will make clear Britain is ready to continue generous payments to the Brussels budget during those transitional years, easing the panic among EU chiefs about a sudden budget black hole.
Such an offer is likely to test the support of the Brexit-backing Tory MPs who have remained loyal and helped to see off the jitters over the summer about the Prime Minister’s leadership. Some senior backbenchers in their ranks would ideally like Mrs May to use her Tuscan trip to tell the EU’s negotiating team that Britain has had enough of their mulish tactics and is pulling out of the talks without a deal. Tory Brexiteers suspect the Prime Minister’s magnanimity may be wasted on EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
They sense the veteran EU diplomat is more interested in burnishing his federalist credentials for a possible tilt at succeeding the increasingly erratic Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European Commission president than in seriously getting down to business in the talks.
AS ONE senior Tory backbencher said: “Barnier’s posturing is becoming insufferable. We cannot put up with this indefinitely.” Many Eurosceptic MPs believe European Commission arrogance could force the Government into delivering the complete break with Brussels without an exit deal that they see as the best outcome for Britain.
Mrs May and her speechwriters face a tricky task in fine-tuning the wording for next Friday’s Florence address. She will need to balance the expected “positive” offer in her effort to re-energise the stalled Brexit talks with soothing the frustrations of Eurosceptic backbenchers and ministers.
Her supporters point out that Mrs May, unlike her recent Downing Street predecessors, rarely makes keynote speeches and does so only when she has something crucial to say. In the spring, her address at Lancaster House defined her vision for a full Brexit with restoring border controls as the top priority. They believe next Friday’s speech will be equally decisive in pointing the way towards an exit deal.
No one is expecting her to turn up in Florence starry-eyed like the lovers on the Ponte Vecchio.
TROUBLE AHEAD: Theresa May could offer continued EU payments in Florence but any deal might be wasted on Michel Barnier