British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters

There were many paradoxes in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit speech in Florence, Italy, last Friday. Billed as an intervention to unblock the United Kingdom’s stalled negotiations with the European Union over its departure, the landmark address was mostly aimed at the EU’s leaders and key officials.

But none of them – including Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator – was there. Instead, May’s audience was primarily made up of members of her Conservative cabinet and British journalists who travelled to the Italian city with her to hear her speak.

At a time when the talks over Britain’s separation from the EU faced a formidable impasse, she talked about “optimism”, “exciting times”, “vibrant times”, “creativity”, “prosperity”, “trust”, “respect”, “imagination”, “innovation”, “ambition” and “aspiration”. These are hardly the words one uses when talking about – or dealing with – a thorny and rather hostile divorce.

Part of her 40-minute speech was to assert that the British people’s vote to leave the EU was nothing else but a desire to control directly the “decisions that affect their daily lives”.

Yet in an effort to defuse the Union’s concerns over nationalistic anti-EU overtones aired by influential Brexiteers, including her Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, in their pre- and post-referendum rhetoric, she said such nice things about the EU that one had the impression she actually was making a compelling case for her country to remain in – not to depart from – the regional bloc.

Indeed, on both the plain background behind her and her podium were the words “Shared History, Shared Challenges, Shared Future”.

The former home secretary insisted that the Brexit vote did not mean the UK was “no longer a proud member of the family of European nations [or turning its] back on Europe”. But while Europe is not the EU and vice versa, it is clear that it is the EU’s remaining 27 member states – not Russia or other authoritarian countries on the continent – with which the UK shares common interests, values and challenges.

May’s explanation that Britain voted to leave in order to take control is also rather ironic. As acknowledged by the pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph in its lead editorial on Saturday, far from taking control, she went to Florence to make “a series of concessions – not just on ECJ [European Court of Justice] and financial contributions” but also on other issues.

Before June’s snap general election she voluntarily called and  which spectacularly backfired, she stubbornly insisted that no deal with the EU on Brexit was better than a bad deal, threatening that the UK was willing to make a clean break in March 2019.

In her Florence speech, she dropped that hard-Brexit posture. Instead, she proposed a two-year transition period after Britain formally leaves the bloc in 2019 and that during that period the UK would pay €10 billion (US$12 billion) per year to the EU budget, remain bound by EU laws and continue the freedom of movement.

In both tone and content, the speech was far more conciliatory and realistic than any Brexit statements she had made previously. Had her government realized the complexities of Britain’s historic departure from the EU and adopted such a constructive and sensible posture earlier, the Brexit talks might not have faced the current stalemate.

Nonetheless, the British leader’s intervention did not offer concrete – or, from the EU’s standpoint, acceptable – solutions to many key Brexit issues, such as the exit bill and citizens’ rights.

That’s why, on Monday, when opening the fourth round of talks in Brussels, Michel Barnier said May’s request for fast-tracked talks on the two-year Brexit transition would only be discussed once the UK had settled these matters.

This also means that despite the constructive spirit it offered, May’s Florence speech apparently failed to break the negotiation deadlock.

Regarding the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU, May, the reluctant Remainer chosen to lead the exit process, said her government rejected both the idea of a traditional free-trade agreement (FTA), such as the deal recently signed between the EU and Canada, and the European Economic Area (EEA) model, a Norway-style membership.

Instead, it sought “a new, deep and special partnership” with its closest and biggest trading partner.

While she did not detail what such a partnership was, she continued to ask implicitly for the advantages of the EEA membership – free economic access to the EU markets – while retaining the freedoms and flexibilities of a Canadian-style FTA.

In other words, the 60-year-old prime minister still pleaded for Britain, albeit more subtly, to have its cake and eat it.

Before the June 2016 referendum and even until now, hardline Brexiteers in her Tory party such as Boris Johnson have adamantly (but naively) insisted that Britain can retain the privileges but not the responsibilities of EU membership.

But from the EU’s perspective, that is virtually impossible. If the UK could gain everything it wants without paying all the financial and regulatory dues, why would other EU members not want the same?

Thus, again, May’s current vision of Britain’s relationship with the EU is not going to work.

Indeed, though she made significant concessions and provided important clarifications, May still failed to offer a clear definition about – or a feasible prospect of – what a post-Brexit Britain would look like.

Her talk came at a time when the UK’s economy has faced many uncertainties and setbacks. The pound has fallen and inflation has risen. To make things worse, just hours after her speech, Moody’s Investor Service downgraded the country’s credit rating.

It is not surprising that a recent opinion poll found that 52% of Britons now back staying in the EU, rising from 50% in the same poll conducted two months earlier. In the 2016 referendum, 52% voted to leave.

If these trends continue, the mood could change dramatically in the next two or three years. As a result, as recently reiterated by Michael Heseltine, former Conservative deputy prime minister, it is possible that the UK may not leave the European Union at all.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.