Munich may not be the most historically auspicious place for a British Prime Minister to give a speech about European security, but Theresa May delivered what Charles Grant, the widely respected Director of the Centre for European Reform, rightly called a serious speech.
This, perhaps, reflects that after her years in the Home Office security is an area where she feels comfortable and knowledgeable. Even so, it contained many ambiguities when the time for ambiguity is running out.
Was the speech intended to be conciliatory and reassuring in stating “unconditionally” Britain’s commitment to Europe’s internal and external security? Or was intended to be threatening in its detailed references to Britain’s intelligence and military capabilities? Was she saying we need each other, or that you need us more than we need you? Perhaps both, and, if so, perhaps for difference audiences?
Was the reference to the need to prevent “rigid institutional restrictions or deep-seated ideology” getting in the way of a deal on security a staggeringly unreflective remark given that the Brexit Ultras, indeed Brexit itself, are the most obvious embodiment of such dogma? Or was it a warning to those same Ultras of the need to be flexible? Was it saying to the EU that whereas the options for trade have been framed in terms of pre-existing models (Norway, Canada) that for security could be bespoke (though, strangely, she invoked trade as an area where there are precedents for a bespoke deal)? Or did it mean that if security could be dealt with on a bespoke basis then why not trade and everything else? Or did it in fact imply, as Sky News’ Political Editor Faisal Islam suggested, a different model, that of the Ukraine Association Agreement?
The references to the role of the ECJ were potentially highly significant, but again ambiguous. She accepted that “when participating in EU agencies the UK will respect the remit of the European Court of Justice”, but the sentence before said that any agreement “must be respectful of both the UK and the EU’s legal orders” (and a spokesperson later said that she had just meant that the UK would pay “due regard” to ECJ rulings). So does this mean Britain accepting actual, or perhaps de facto, ECJ jurisdiction with respect to participation in those agencies or not? Does it imply, instead, some kind of new UK-EU legal body (I have thought, ever since the White Paper was published, that this was where things were heading) and if so how would it work and what would the implications be for participation in other agencies, such as Euratom? The ECJ red line, first drawn by May in her Party Conference speech in 2016, has created some of the most intractable problems for Brexit – but was she softening it or restating it in the Munich speech?
The meaning of these ambiguities is itself ambiguous. Is it that she dare not be clear for fear of causing uproar within her party? Or that she is not clear in her own mind what she means? Sometimes, I have the sense that May is simply not alive to the implications of the phrases that she uses. Going right back to the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ months, before the Lancaster House speech, she used to speak of retaining frictionless trade in goods and services. This seemed to code a soft Brexit, since that is the only way of achieving such trade. But subsequently it emerged that this was not what she meant, even though she still uses the same phrase, and it sometimes seems that she does not understand the complexities and subtleties of what is involved in Brexit – for example the full implications of having set herself so firmly against any role for the ECJ. That may seem an extraordinary thing to say of a Prime Minister and seasoned politician, but if the picture created by Tim Shipman’s widely acclaimed book Fall Out is accurate it may be correct. There, she is portrayed very much as a blank canvas on to which her advisers painted pretty much whatever they wanted.
Whether studied or uncomprehending, her ambiguity has in the past served her well, allowing different people to project on to her whatever they find conducive. This has enabled her to walk the line between EU and domestic pressures and between different factions in her ever-more fractious party. The Munich speech reflects that: it can be read as slowly inching her Ultras towards pragmatism or slowly inching the EU towards creating the bespoke Brexit that she apparently thinks possible. (Shipman’s book is again revealing on this, both in suggesting that she does, indeed, reject the ‘Norway-Canada’ duality and, also, that she regards the ‘opt out and selectively opt back in’ approach that she adopted to the EU whilst at the Home Office as the template for Brexit, although few regard it as realistic. Tellingly, she made reference to exactly that experience in her Munich speech).
However, such ambiguity is fast becoming a fatal weakness. Had we but world enough and time, to use the words of Marvell’s famous poem, it might be viable to keep walking the tightrope and, perhaps, to gradually push whoever it is she wants to push towards whatever it is she wants to push towards, if indeed she knows. Since she sent the Article 50 letter, though, time has been at a premium and has now all but expired. May’s speech in Munich may have been serious but the ambiguities within it, as well as her wider ambiguities about Brexit, cannot persist for much longer. Within the next few months, if not indeed the next few weeks, she will need to come off several carefully-constructed but inherently fragile fences.🔷
(This piece was first published on The Brexit Blog.)