European governments, Presidents of the European Union, top EU officials and Michel Barnier’s Brexit negotiation team will all be tuning in to Theresa May’s speech in Florence today, which will be the biggest intervention she’s made on the matter since her Lancaster House speech almost a year ago.
The prime minister is expected to extend an olive branch to EU negotiators, offering them 20 billion euros to fill the budget black hole that would be left in Britain’s absence and extended rights for EU citizens. The hope is to break the current deadlock in negotiations and push the EU into talking about future trade.
Yesterday morning the speech was revealed to cabinet ministers, who’ve recently been divided over the transitional period – expected to feature heavily in the speech – and the future trade agreement.
The bust up led to Boris Johnson breaking with collective responsibility by releasing a 4,000 word article in an attempt to warn the prime minister against Brexit backsliding – something senior Brexiteers have been privately worried about. On the other side of the cabinet debate, the chancellor has attempted to pressure the prime minister into opting for a softer EEA+ position whereby Britain would adopt all EU regulations in return for single market access.
Despite their major disagreements, the two men, representing the soft and hard Brexit factions of the cabinet, walked out of the cabinet meeting together in a show of unity, signalling that the entire cabinet is behind today’s speech.
Both Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Chancellor Philip Hammond will be with the prime minister in Florence as she gives her speech.
The EU’s top Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, pre-empted the speech by stating there is “only one year left to swiftly reach an agreement on the UK’s orderly withdrawal”, which appeared to be a jab at the prime minister by suggesting that she should be focused on Britain’s divorce settlements rather than the transitional period and future trade agreements.
Mr. Barnier also said he will “listen attentively and constructively to Prime Minister May’s important speech tomorrow”. He is expected to respond to the speech just 15 minutes after the prime minister has walked off stage.
Despite the prime minister’s goodwill gestures, the EU is will likely maintain a hard line on the Brexit bill by demanding more than just the 20 billion on offer (likely 40+ billion) as it doesn’t account for long-term obligations, and EU judicial oversight of the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.
“Nobody should anticipate an immediate breakthrough. In public, the Europeans will be surly. Expect negative briefing from the Commission, sarcasm from Guy Verhofstadt, and a polite but not positive reply from Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker,” wrote Nick Timothy, the prime minister’s former chief of staff.
Whether or not today’s big speech will be a game-changer is unpredictable, but Europe will certainly be listening very carefully to what Prime Minister May says, and most importantly, offers.