The absurdity of May’s frantic Florence speech
Incredible By Garry Polmateer | September 22, 2017
For the past few days staff from Number 10, with the help of their colleagues at the British Embassy in Rome, have been frantic.
A keynote speech was needed; it had to be in Europe (not the UK), and the location had to be iconic.
The brainstorming produced Florence.
The perfect location: an iconic European city but not one directly associated with the European Union because its roots stretch much further.
Florence is one of the great industrial cities of medieval Europe. It thrived on the drive of its merchants, who turned its local wool industry into a global success.
Hundreds of years later, this birthplace of Machiavelli is, the advisers think, the spot for Theresa May to spell out her plan for Brexit.
:: Will Florence join list of cities that have defined EU history?
The frantic call would have come into the British Embassy in Rome.
May speech… Florence…. Friday…. somewhere iconic. Make it work.
And so the political theatre was set in motion. And it is just that – theatre. Nonsense, some might say.
Mrs May will speak in a hall that was empty, dusty and inhabited by pigeons until three days ago. It formed part of an abandoned police barracks until recently.
It has been hastily cleaned; pot plants have been scattered around. From the camera angle you see at home it will look impressive.
But her audience will be almost all journalists from London who have travelled here, with her, to hear her speak.
The rest of the audience will be made up of members of her (divided) Cabinet and a few local Italian dignitaries, who have kindly lent their venue for the afternoon.
The people she is actually talking to will watch and listen from their ‘stalls’ many hundreds of miles away.
She is talking to so many different people with many different hopes and expectations.
Those she needs to satisfy, who have a plethora of expectations, include:
:: The remaining member states of the European Union:: The millions of citizens (Britons in the EU and EU folk in the UK) who wonder nervously about their future:: Businesses across the continent who have literally no idea what’s in store for them in 18 months time:: The European Parliament (remember they can veto the whole deal and their members represent citizens across the bloc):: The British Parliament:: The British Conservative party:: Her own Cabinet:: The 52% of Britons who voted ‘Leave’:: The 48% who voted ‘Remain’
She has an almost impossible line to tread. She must be heard to say that no bill will be paid but at the same time say we’ll meet our legal financial commitments (which will be interpreted by many as we’ll pay a bill ).
She needs to say we need a transition period (which we accept we’ll need to pay for) but balance that with anger from hardline Brexiteers who’ll say the UK is still funnelling money into the EU after Brexit Day.
Semantics will be important. She needs to find a form of words which somehow satisfy wholly different visions of what Brexit can look like within her party, business, and the country but also satisfy those in Europe with whom she needs to do a deal.
Ultimately, this speech is about breaking the deadlock.
The Brexit talks are split into two phases: the divorce and the future relationship.
Only when sufficient progress (as defined by the remaining EU members) has been made on the divorce, can talks on phase two – the future relationship – begin.
That means agreement on:
:: The financial settlement:: Citizens’ rights:: The Irish border
Good sources, who are plugged into the negotiating rooms, tell me that on the financial settlement, the two sides are nowhere .
On the Irish border issue, they are also nowhere when it comes to solving the riddle of the border itself, though on other Ireland issues there is progress.
Only on the issue of citizens’ rights do both sides claim that proper progress has been made.
That’s great, but no one seems to have told the citizens themselves – three million EU citizens in the UK and more than one million Brits in the EU – who continue to feel very uncertain about their future.
I just got off the phone to Charlotte Oliver, a British lawyer who lives in Rome with an Italian partner and two half-Italian children.
She has no idea what her status will be in two years.
I was able to come over here and set up my own law firm here, she told me.
And it’s so bizarre – the clocks are being turned back and I don’t know what my paperwork is going to look like in the next two years or so.
It feels like a war is going on.
The UK government says ‘we want to protect you but the EU won’t let us’.
But the EU says ‘it’s the first thing we want to do’.
It’s a war of words.
She speaks for 65,000 Brits living in Italy, more than one million Brits living across the continental European Union and three million EU citizens living in the UK.
All of them will listen to every one of Mrs May’s words.