Prime minister Theresa May gave a definitive Brexit speech in Florence
In her keynote address in Florence the PM signed the UK up to a two-year transition period on membership terms, a sizeable divorce fee and ongoing respect for ECJ judgements.
But whilst the prime minister offered concessions in some areas she was steadfast in others, insisting that Britain will leave the Single Market and Customs union in March 2019.
The speech had been widely billed as a make-or-break attempt to unpick the deadlocked Brexit talks. Had Brussels rejected her offer out of hand, it was hard to see where negotiations could go next.
So Downing Street will have been relieved to see it generate a surprisingly warm response from Michel Barnier, the bloc’s steely chief negotiator, who said he was pleased to see “concrete” proposals on the table.
EU ministers have also weighed in this evening with positive remarks, but have seemed to temper expectations that the address alone could be enough to unlock “sufficient progress” at the next EU Council summit.
Here express.co.uk looks at the five key areas of interest to both the EU and the UK in the speech, what Mrs May had to say and how senior European figures reacted to her plans.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed the ‘constructive’ address
But it received a cooler reception from EU Parliament rapporteur Guy Verhofstadt
Citizens’ rights is one of the three key divorce issues – the other two being the financial settlement and Northern Ireland – that the EU is insisting are solved before trade talks can begin.
In her Florence speech Mrs May sought to downplay fears that Europeans in the UK would suffer from Brexit, acknowledging that the decision to leave hadb “been a cause of great worry and anxiety for them and their loved ones”.
She told them: “We want you to stay. We value you and we thank you for your contribution to our national life. It remains one of my first goals in this negotiation to ensure that you can carry on living your lives as before.”
However, the key sticking point in this part of the talks is how those rights are guaranteed. The EU wants its court – the ECJ – to continue in its role as the ultimate guarantor for Europeans.
But Mrs May says this is unacceptable and today proposed an independent arbitration system, whilst reassuring Brussels that British judges would continue to “take into account” its court’s rulings.
In his response, Mr Barnier said: “Our priority is to protect the rights of citizens. EU27 citizens in the United Kingdom must have the same rights as British citizens today in the European Union.
“Prime Minister May’s statements are a step forward but they must now be translated into a precise negotiating position of the UK government.”
However the European Parliament, which has taken by far the hardest line on citizens’ rights which it sees as a top priority, was unsurprisingly less enthusiastic in its response.
Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said Mrs May’s proposal that EU citizens arriving during the transition period will need to register with authorities is “out of the question” and added: “It can never be allowed for the ECJ to be replaced by another dispute settle mechanism during our future relationship.”
Meanwhile Manfred Weber, chairman of the parliament’s largest grouping the EPP, tweeted: “Money is one thing, but people’s everyday life is more important. EU citizens in the UK need legal certainty.”
The prime minister said very little of substance about how to solve the Irish border issue in her speech – an omission which did not escape the EU’s eagle-eyed chief negotiator.
Mrs May insisted that it is a British priority to “protect progress made in Northern Ireland over recent years – and the lives and livelihoods that depend on this progress” and reiterated her commitment to keeping the Good Friday Agreement and Common Travel Area.
She said both the UK and EU have “stated explicitly that we will not accept any physical infrastructure at the border” but gave no detail how this will be achieved – something Brussels feels is firmly Britain’s responsibility.
In the most cutting part of what was generally a warm response to the speech, Mr Barnier replied: “Today’s speech does not clarify how the UK intends to honour its special responsibility for the consequences of its withdrawal for Ireland.
“Our objective is to preserve the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions, as well as the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union.”
Meanwhile, Mr Verhofstadt repeated his opinion that the best way to solve the border issue is to give Northern Ireland a special status that keeps it in the Single Market and Customs Union.
He said: “I didn’t hear yet how the UK government wants to avoid a hard border or physical checks on the island of Ireland. This only seems possible if Northern Ireland remains part of the Customs Union.”
The single financial settlement – better known as the Brexit divorce bill – had become the biggest single sticking point between the two sides in recent negotiating rounds.
Brussels, egged on by Angela Merkel, is reportedly asking for up to £90 billion – a demand Britain responded to by producing detailed analysis querying the legal basis of such a payment.
This in turn infuriated EU leaders who feared the UK may be about to walk away from its budget commitments, plunging the bloc into financial chaos and causing the cancellation of thousands of projects.
Today’s concrete pledge by Mrs May that Britain will honour in full the spending plans it has signed up to, until 2020, therefore comes as a huge relief to Brussels.
In a conciliatory passage of her speech, the PM said: “I do not want our partners to fear that they will need to pay more or receive less over the remainder of the current budget plan as a result of our decision to leave. The UK will honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership.”
She also raised the possibility of the UK participating in common EU projects in the future, reassuring leader that “we would want to make an ongoing contribution to cover our fair share of the costs involved”.
Mr Barnier gave this commitment a warm thumbs up, responding: “The United Kingdom recognises that no Member State will have to pay more or receive less because of Brexit. We stand ready to discuss the concrete implications of this pledge.”
But Mr Verhofstadt was more guarded, saying that while the “additional clarifications” were welcome some “important questions remain” over exactly how much the UK will pay.
In particular, he was concerned by the PM’s implicit suggestion that British contributions will stop at the end of 2020, whilst some already scheduled programmes stretch well into that decade.
He said: “The UK government will have to come up with concrete proposals next week, during the fourth round of negotiations to bring full clarity.”
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One of the other fundamental pledges Mrs May made in today’s speech was a recognition that any transition period beyond March 2019 will have to be conducted on current membership terms.
In a move which has soothed fears in Brussels the PM admitted it was worth two more years of free movement and ECJ oversight in order to secure a “smooth” and successful exit from the bloc.
She said: “During the implementation period access to one another’s markets should continue on current terms…and I know businesses, in particular, would welcome the certainty this would provide.
“The framework for this strictly time-limited period, which can be agreed under Article 50, would be the existing structure of EU rules and regulations.”
The EU has always insisted that any transitional deal would have to be on membership terms, both to protect the integrity of the Single Market and also due to simple time constraints.
This proposal prompted one of the most encouraging passaged of Mr Barnier’s response to the speech, in which he suggested that EU leaders should “take into account” such a generous offer when deciding on “sufficient progress”.
His remarks appear to imply there is a modicum of wiggle room in the bloc’s rigidly phased negotiating approach, given that the transition has been classed as a future partnership issue, and will delight British officials who have urged him to show more flexibility.
The Frenchman said: “If the European Union so wishes, this new request could be taken into account by the EU and examined in light of the European Council stated in its guidelines.
“The sooner we reach an agreement on the principles of the orderly withdrawal in the different areas – and on the conditions of a possible transition period requested by the United Kingdom – the sooner we will be ready to engage in a constructive discussion on our future relationship.”
The proposal was also cautiously welcomed by Irish PM Leo Varadkar, who said: “I think it is a genuine effort by the prime minister to move things along,” he said this afternoon. We will, of course, need further clarity and further understanding as to how a transition period might work,” he said.
And Poland’s Europe minister Konrad Szymański added: “We can agree to talk about a transitional period in relation between the EU and the UK only if that could lead to complete fulfilment of the UK’s commitments toward the EU.
“Membership of the UK in the single market as well as the customs’ union translates into regulatory and financial obligations of the UK toward the EU.”
Finally, Mrs May spoke at some length – but not always in great detail – about the kind of future economic relationship she wants to see between Britain and the EU.
The prime minister first ruled out a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU, which would place “such a restriction on our mutual market access that it would benefit neither of our economies”.
She then went on to also dismiss Norway-style Single Market access, which would entail “a loss of democratic control that could not work for the British people”.
Instead the PM pitched for a “close economic partnership that holds rights and obligations in a new and different balance” – widely interpreted as a model in the middle but slightly closer to the Norwegian format.
She said: “Let us not seek merely to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. Instead 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.
“So this new economic partnership, would be comprehensive and ambitious. It would be underpinned by high standards, and a practical approach to regulation that enables us to continue to work together in bringing shared prosperity to our peoples for generations to come.”
EU officials have so far been highly reluctant to comment on Britain’s future trade aspirations, as they fear to do so would undermine their phased negotiating approach.
But Mr Barnier did welcome the explicit acknowledgement from Mrs May that Britain cannot have its cake and eat it, and that no third country can enjoy the benefits of the Single Market without its obligations.
He said: “The EU shares the goal of establishing an ambitious partnership for the future. The fact that the government of the United Kingdom recognises that leaving the European Union means that it cannot keep all the benefits of membership with fewer obligations than the other Member States is welcome.
“In any case, the future relationship will need to be based on a balance of rights and obligations. It will need to respect the integrity of the Union’s legal order and the autonomy of its decision-making.”
Mr Verhofstadt, who has advocated an association agreement with Britain similar to pacts the bloc has signed with countries like Ukraine, described the PM’s comments as vague.
He added: “With regards to the future relationship, I heard a lot about what the UK doesn’t want. I hope to hear from them soon how they see the “deep and special partnership” with the EU.
“However, full clarity on the essential elements of the withdrawal agreement and positive steps in the negotiations are needed before the Parliament can assess that sufficient progress has been made to open the negotiations on the future relationship.”
Source : EXPRESS