An assessment of PM Theresa May’s landmark speech on Brexit in Florence.
Some months ago I made the incontrovertible claim that Brexiteers were trying to sell us a pig in a poke. To my surprise I was asked by some people what ‘pig in a poke’ meant. A poke being an old word for a small sack, the phrase means buying something without knowing its value.
This surprising unfamiliarity with what was once a very common saying in our language is the only reason why I am nervous in saying of Mrs’ May’s Florence speech that fair words butter no parsnips.
I have no doubt that Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg would be able to tell you the meaning of both phrases. For all I know, he may even be able to tell you their Latin equivalents. But, despite his instant criticism of his Prime Minister’s speech as an incipient sell-out of the Brexit cause, he is wrong if he thinks that she buttered any Remain parsnips.
It is true that she has had to take note of her own Chancellor’s greater realism and to concede that we will need time to unravel more than 40 years of constitutional and commercial knitting together of our European partnership.
Given the snail’s pace at which discussions have proceeded so far, as well as the time needed for ratification of any deal by 27 countries, the likelihood is that March 2019 will prove an impossibly tight deadline.
As Prime Minister of a country that makes much of the rule of law and as a person who presumably subscribes to Anglican codes of behaviour Mrs. May has also recognised our obvious legal and moral obligations to pay our EU bills until 2020, and maybe beyond – something she could have done months ago.
No-one believes that the mooted £20 billion is anything other than a starting figure in the negotiations.
That said, she is still unable to paint even the haziest picture of what our future relationship with the EU will be. The future for Britain remains clouded in uncertainty and fraught with danger. There are many phrases in the speech that seem to acknowledge those dangers, though without following through their logic.
Let her speak for herself:
“Here on our own continent, we see territorial aggression to the east; and from the South threats from instability and civil war; terrorism, crime and other challenges which respect no borders.
At best, any Brexit will be more hard than soft.
“The only way for us to respond to this vast array of challenges is for likeminded nations and peoples to come together and defend the international order that we have worked so hard to create – and the values of liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law by which we stand,” she said.
And again: “Mass migration and terrorism are but two examples of the challenges to our shared European interests and values that we can only solve in partnership.”
She even conceded that “the profound pooling of sovereignty that is a crucial feature of the European union permits unprecedentedly deep cooperation, which brings benefits.” Amen to that.
But against that she pitched two arguments: first, that within the EU “when countries are in a minority they must sometimes accept decisions they do not want”. And, second, that “the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union…perhaps because of our history and geography the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story.”
As for the first of these arguments, it hardly squares with the fact that that between 2004 and 2009 the UK voted on the majority side in the Council of Ministers 97.4% of the time. Even in the period 2009-15, mostly under a Conservative government struggling with its own internal divisions, the UK was on the majority side in the Council of Ministers on 86.7% of occasions.
In this latter period a high proportion of the dissenting occasions were to do with budgetary policies and foreign and security matters, rather than on trade, industry, environment, transport or legal affairs.
And as for ‘not feeling totally at home’ in Europe or Europe ‘not being an integral part of our national story’ – this leaves out of account profound changes in the ease and cost of transport and travel in Europe as well as shared cultural consumption, sporting endeavour and research collaboration.
At a deeper level it also leaves out of account ways in which the reality of cross cultural influences and Britain’s involvement in European history differs from the story we, or rather our media, have chosen to tell ourselves. It is truly symbolic that arch-Brexiteer, Nigel Lawson, opines on the European issue from his mansion in Armagnac.
Taken together, it leaves one wondering what on earth Mrs May believed when, apparently, she cast her vote for Remain last year? Did she flip a coin?
In Florence she stated baldly that “we can’t leave the EU and have everything stay the same.” No-one will quarrel with that, but one might expect our Prime Minister to be able to tell us what will be different.
Equally baldly, she said “we will no longer be members of its single market or its customs union.” Now that is a very big difference indeed. It is also a statement that, quite apart from its likely economic consequences, puts her immediately at odds with the Welsh and Scottish Governments, as well as creating jeopardy for Northern Ireland.
In a further sentence that combines ambition, banality and zero substance this rather uncreative politician urged negotiators to 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”.
Her own creative juices brought forward no hint of how these things might be squared. Perhaps she is waiting for a reborn Florentine sculptor to carve her the Gates of Paradise anew.
But in arguing that these things cannot be squared – that you cannot have your cake and eat it – there is one caution here for those of us who have opposed Brexit, including the Welsh Government. The implication is that, in the end, there will be no choice other than between a hard Brexit and no Brexit. At best, any Brexit will be more hard than soft. In this situation the case for No Brexit must not go by default. That will be the next stage in the debate.