Theresa May’s speech in Florence tomorrow is her chance to bring order to the Brexit chaos. Brussels will look on with interest but will pay closer attention to the reaction of May’s colleagues and her party than to the prime minister herself.
So why Florence? The speech had to be delivered on EU turf, but Germany and France have their minds on other things, Belgium can hardly be seen as neutral territory and many Brits have never heard of Luxembourg. The only founding nation left to choose from was Italy.
May hopes the Renaissance city will offer a sympathetic stage for her vision of the UK’s post-Brexit “deep and special partnership” with the EU, a topic that Brussels only wants to hear about once the issues of the Irish border, citizens’ rights and the Brexit bill are settled.
And unlike for her speech at the UN this week, she will hope that more than half the seats are filled.
Details of the speech have been kept tightly under wraps, but expect the “open and generous offer” to begin with polite references to Europe’s shared values and history, followed by banalities about Britain’s “global” future and the importance of continued cooperation with the EU.
This is all well and good, but the attention of Michel Barnier – and May’s own cabinet – will be on the money.
May’s mooted offer of a €20bn divorce settlement is a sign that the UK is finally ready to start negotiating seriously.
The Commission, of course, is unlikely to accept such a low-ball bid on its €60bn figure without a fight. But at this stage, that is neither here nor there: it will at last (or at least?) give both sides something concrete to dig their teeth into at next week’s talks.
What really matters, and what Barnier and co. will be looking out for, is the reaction of May’s own Conservative Party. This will show them whether she is to be taken seriously or whether her time is up.
With that in mind, €20bn is a well-chosen starting point.
Aim too low and mountain-man Barnier would simply tell the Brits to take a hike; too high and the recent skirmishes in the cabinet could balloon into all-out war, costing May her job and potentially derailing the Brexit negotiations altogether.
That May is ready to make an offer at all shows she realises Britain needs a Brexit deal and that the only way to get one before time runs out is to stop squabbling and start negotiating like grown-ups.
If she manages to bring her party to heel, May might yet steer Britain clear of the Brexit cliff-edge.
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PM May’s speech in Florence. But why there?
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