LONDON – In a major speech on how Britain wants to exit the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May called Friday for a two-year “implementation period” after Brexit, during which trade and travel, customs regulations and security arrangements would continue on current terms.
May’s remarks in Florence immediately stirred debate in Britain and across Europe about exactly what she meant. But the consensus was that Britain means to leave the European Union as promised in March 2019, but remain a full trading partner, pay its full share to the European Union budget and fully abide by its collective rulings for an additional two years, more or less.
In short, this appears to mean that a first, political, diplomatic Brexit will happen in March 2019 – and that full trade and travel Brexit will happen in 2021.
The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, dubbed May’s speech “constructive” but added that it “must be translated into negotiating positions to make meaningful progress.”
Barnier said the prime minister showed “a willingness to move forward.”
Not everyone on the European side was so diplomatic.
Manfred Weber, a senior German member of the European Parliament and an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the speech was far from illuminating.
“In substance PM May is bringing no more clarity to London’s positions. I am even more concerned now,” he tweeted.
European and British negotiators have spent the last six months – and three rounds of talks in Brussels – with very little to show.
Before her talk, the hyperbolic British press was dubbing May’s moment in Florence the speech of her political career.
The consensus appears to be that May’s address was optimistic, can-do and a very British, very Conservative, very May speech – with one eye on challenges to her leadership back home, but thin on details.
The speech was notable for its almost complete absence of blame on all sides and May extending her hand, about 11 times, in friendship.
“It’s up to leaders to set the tone, a tone of trust,” May said.
In her remarks, May kept pressing her skeptical European counterparts not to get bogged down in who pays what, when and how, but to envision instead a new post-Brexit world in which “imaginative” and “creative” and “ambitious” solutions could bind the two entities together toward common goals based on shared values.
“We want to be your strongest friend and partner as the E.U. and the U.K. thrive side by side,” May told the Europeans.
“We want to work hand-in-hand with the European Union, rather than as part of the European Union,” she said.
Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for Britain’s Labour Party, said May has finally accepted a long transition phase, as his opposition party has advocated.
“Not much else in the speech,” he tweeted.
Nigel Farage, former leader of the U.K. Independence Party and a high-profile Brexiteer, slammed the speech, saying that May was seeking to “rebadge the status quo.”
“The most telling line of the whole speech was towards the end when she said, ‘We don’t seek an unfair competitive advantage.’ Well, that’s what I voted for! I voted for us to be able to be competitive, to be global, to be free of European laws,” he told Sky News.
The Daily Mail, a British tabloid that has been very gung-ho on Brexit, flashed a headline that read: “May is accused of BETRAYING referendum by effectively keeping Britain in EU until 2021.”
Journalist James Blitz wrote in the Financial Times’s Brexit Briefing: “This was a determined effort to break the logjam in the talks. It is too soon to say whether Mrs May will have convinced the EU to move to phase two in a little over a month’s time.”
May promised a “bold new security agreement” and said Britain is “unconditionally committed to Europe’s security.”
The prime minister said she hoped two trading partners could do “so much better” than even the best and most recent deals that the European Union has struck with Canada and Norway.
There should “no need to impose tariffs where there are none now,” May said, hopefully.
The 27 other E.U. member states agree that they will start talking about future rights, privileges and trade for Britain only after “sufficient progress” has been made on three other key issues – E.U. citizens rights, the border with Ireland and the divorce bill.
May promised that E.U. citizens already living in the United Kingdom would be welcome to stay. On the problematic frontier between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, she said there should be no hard border.
The prime minister did not say how much Britain would pay into European Union coffers to remain in the trading bloc during the transition – nor how much Britain might owe to get out of the union.
May said only that London would “honor”its existing and future commitments.
Independent estimates of that “divorce bill” – the settling of accounts for British commitments, offset by payments to the E.U. – range from $30 billion to $90 billion.