May aims to advance Brexit talks with speech in coming weeks
(Bloomberg) UK Prime Minister Theresa May is to use a speech in late September to try to force the pace of Brexit negotiations as an October showdown with her European counterparts looms.
She will explain how a raft of British position papers offer a vision of a "deep and special partnership" with the European Union, and make the case for continuous talks with a view to inject urgency into the discussion and tilt the direction toward trade. This much has been said by her team in the lead-up to an address that will unveil her latest thinking on Britain’s exit from the EU.
While the idea of a speech has been discussed for weeks, as late as Monday afternoon an official in May’s office said that the timing remained unconfirmed. That was until the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, appeared to give away the date while explaining to lawmakers in Brussels why the next session of talks could be pushed back a week.
"Apparently there will be an important intervention by the British prime minister in the coming days, foreseen on September 21, and then it’s a little bit stupid that there is this mixed with the negotiation round," Verhofstadt said.
The UK refused to confirm the delay in negotiations and an official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plans are still private, said the Belgian politician was wrong on the date. But they said the speech will see May reflect on the UK’s position, eight months after she first set out her Brexit vision.
While May has insisted that nothing has changed in her position since January, both her circumstances and the government’s stance have shifted. She went from being a new leader with a crushing lead in the polls to a weakened prime minister with question-marks over her future.
That’s due to a disastrous campaign for June’s snap election, which among many things amounted to a rejection of the hard Brexit May had embraced with gusto. She now must contend with voters who won’t forgive the economic pain that comes with leaving the bloc and are open to giving the opposition a go after 12 years of Tories.
Observers will be scrutinising May’s speech for evidence of a softening in policy and tone.
On the technical aspects of Brexit, the UK’s shifts have been less obvious, but cumulatively they add up. In January, May’s language was seen as uncompromising. Since June, ministers have said the UK is open to working indirectly with the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice and there is public acknowledgment of a bill to be paid.
The conversation now has moved to financial contributions to the EU budget over a multi-year transition period that could involve staying inside the customs union. Britain has also stopped talking about bespoke trade deals and instead plans to copy those already in place between the EU and third countries.
As May gears up for her big speech, parliament resumes with Labour eager to test her weakness. This means that Brexit talks in Brussels might take a backseat, not that they were going particularly well.
Even though there’s some convergence between the two sides on peripheral issues related to citizens’ rights and the management of the Irish border, there’s virtually no movement on the financial settlement. After last week’s failure, there will be one round of talks this month, followed by another one on October 9, before EU leaders convene in Brussels on October 19.
That is when the 27 remaining governments of the EU decide on whether sufficient progress has been achieved on separation issues to allow trade talks to begin. The stakes are high for the UK and May needs a breakthrough more than the EU, with the clock ticking down to Brexit day on March 29, 2019.